District lines draw dedication and doubt

Volunteer panel wraps up task of adjusting school boundaries

`Please don't move my child,' parents beg

October 10, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Your decisions will anger many, you'll be blamed for breaking up neighborhoods and some will question if you have a heart.

By the way, the job doesn't pay.

So why would anyone volunteer to serve on a committee that redistricts high school boundaries -- possibly the most contentious education issue in Howard County?

"Frankly, I'm not looking for the public's gratitude for this work but to make sure the process is transparent and equitable as possible," said Tom Grobicki, a member of the Howard County School Boundary Line Committee. "Ultimately, some people have to move and some people don't, and the [school board] will have to make a decision. I want to make sure what comes to the board is reasonable."

Meeting once a week for four months, the 17-member committee poured over a half-dozen maps and scoured through pages of student enrollment projections and test score data to redraw and reshape high school districts as the county prepares to open Marriott's Ridge High next fall.

Last month, the committee completed its work by recommending two redistricting proposals that would shuffle between 2,102 to 2,471 students to new schools by the time Marriott's Ridge has a senior class in 2007.

It is a difficult task that requires patience, commitment and a tough skin.

During the last round of high school redistricting for the opening of Reservoir High in 2002, the committee became the source of the community's frustration, criticism and angry e-mail and phone calls.

Penny Rheingans, the mother of two elementary school pupils, got involved for two reasons: She wanted to make the county's schools as equal as possible and use her computer science and data background to help solve a complex issue.

"It's an intellectual problem," she said. "I watched the process on TV the last time they redistricted the high school. I said, `I bet you could build tools to make the process easier.'"

By all accounts, community reaction has been more muted and not as cantankerous as in previous years. That is because the redistricting process has evolved with more accurate enrollment projections and better data on feeder schools and housing facts, committee members say. And there seems to be more public understanding about what factors play into the committee's decisions.

"Like all public process, I found that when you were able to talk to someone one on one, remove the group dynamics out of it, and talk about their issues and situations, it was a much calmer, rational discussion," said Stan Edwards, a first-time committee member. That is not to say that the process has been devoid of emotions or misconceptions. Some e-mail has been mean-spirited, and committee members have heard the familiar refrain: "Please don't move my child." And while the committee feels for a particular parent, neighborhood or student, members say redistricting is a fact of life in a county that is growing.

"Parents will use very emotional and personal individual arguments about what their child is doing," said Grobicki, who has served on several redistricting committees. "Again, you are sympathetic, but in the end, it has to happen. The right answer is to go back 10 years in time, put the schools in the right place and fund it. Then we probably won't have to make these decisions."

But the difficult and often anguishing decisions about which neighborhoods get moved have to be made. It is not as simple as moving students to the closest schools, or having a continuous feeder system that moves groups together at each school level, common misconceptions among parents, committee members say.

"The ideal that everyone would like to have is your kids go to an elementary school and move together to middle school and high school," Edwards said. "There is no one in the county that doesn't want that, but it's not feasible because of the population growth."

The committee used several criteria to reshape boundaries, including the school capacity target of 90 percent to 110 percent, feeder systems that move children from middle to high schools, socioeconomic standing, academic performance and how often a neighborhood has been redistricted in the past.

Because criteria are not ranked, members engaged in a delicate chess match, finding that several factors played against each other.

"They said we had sleepless nights, and we did," said Ellen Giles, chairwoman of the committee. "You rack your brain to find different ways. For most of it, the key considerations were to use the facilities to their best use and try to make sure a large enough group [of students] move together and not isolate the children."

For Edwards, balancing a school's demographics was a particular concern.

"I would like to think that every kid in the county has an equal opportunity to get an education," said Edwards, who has a sophomore attending Centennial High School and an eighth-grader at Dunloggin Middle School.

Grobicki anguished over shuffling the same group of children again or redistricting neighborhoods that were affected in previous years.

"It's not that we're picking on them, but they're in the growth area and schools are being built there," he said. "I feel for those people."

Using the committee's two proposals, Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin is scheduled to present his recommendations to the school board Oct. 28. The committee's work becomes the foundation for the final high school redistricting map, which the school board is expected to adopt next month.

The committee's efforts are not lost on Courtney Watson, the school board chairman.

"It's an awful big challenge," Watson said. "The committee is a big asset to the board in doing the research and hard work in determining the best plan."

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