Feeder system a tough draw

Reshaping school districts for new Marriott's Ridge is complex task for panel

August 01, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

The last round of redistricting for Howard County high schools in 2001 turned contentious, pitting communities and parents against each other.

This year, the Howard County School Boundary Line Committee is once again reshaping high school boundaries to fill Marriott's Ridge High School when it opens in fall of next year.

Meeting since June, the committee has been reviewing three preliminary plans drafted by the school's geographical information systems office.

Under each plan, between 2,200 to 2,800 rising freshmen and sophomore students would be shifted throughout the county to fill Marriott's Ridge by 2007, when the phasing-in of the county's 12th high school will be complete.

All three plans send students mostly from the northern end of the Glenelg High School district and the western end of the Mt. Hebron High School district to the 1,332-seat new high school in Marriottsville.

A fourth plan, introduced at Wednesday's committee meeting, is considered the most aggressive because it would reassign nearly 4,700 students.

Unlike the three plans where the goal was to fill the new high school first, the newest proposal relieves overcrowded high schools in the northeast and then shifts students west and south, said Penny Rheingans, a committee member who drew up the proposal.

"It's more aggressive about filling the new school and trying to distribute kids so that nobody has to be in an overfilled school," she said.

Community involvement and interest have already been high - even with these very preliminary proposals - with close to four dozen people attending the committee's weekly meetings on some nights and hundreds of e-mails filling the group's inboxes.

The attention is not surprising to the 17-member committee, considering the difficult task of shuffling thousands of students among high schools where close community ties exist.

"Any time you do redistricting, it's contentious," said David C. Drown, the school district's coordinator of geographical systems. "Especially when you do high schools, it gets more contentious. People associate their community with the high school."

The committee uses objective criteria to reshape boundaries, including school capacity targets of 90 percent to 110 percent, feeder systems that move children from middle to high schools, socioeconomic standing, academic performance and distance.

"We try to balance them out," said Ellen Giles, chairwoman and veteran member of the boundary line committee. "One thing that resonates with many of the people on the committee is the feeder - that [the students] move with a large enough group."

In evaluating the committee's plans, the school board will look to "see how well the plans meet those criteria," said school board chairman Courtney Watson.

"We try to look at the feeder patterns and try to make sure there isn't a too small of a group coming from one school," Watson said. "We try to look at how often the kids have been redistricted in the past. We very much consider all the existing space as much as possible when we redistrict the students."

By being objective and open, Drown said, the committee hopes the community understands the redistricting process better, although some people may not be happy with the results.

"When we propose moving folks out of one school to another, we know they're not going to be happy," he said. "But because we have to do it, when we do it, we want to make sure we evaluate this in an objective matter, because it's emotional."

The redistricting process in 2001 for the opening of Reservoir High School the next fall became fractious, leaving many parents frustrated, angry and bitter. In one major point of contention, the plan placed some River Hill neighborhoods in the Atholton High district.

"It's a very difficult job and we're grateful that we have citizens who want to do it," Watson said.

For the next month, the committee will work out the details on the four plans and evaluate alternative proposals before coming up with its tentative recommendations - which are to be presented to the community in late September.

On Oct. 28, the group will present its final proposals to the Board of Education, which will make its decision in November, after a series of public hearings.

The boundary line committee meets at 7 p.m. Wednesdays in Room B-37 of the Applied Research Lab, 10920 Route 108, Ellicott City.

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