School redistricting stirs up emotions of Howard County pupils and parents

System makes frequent changes

some families affected multiple times

October 17, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Chris Peters entered Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City four years ago as a freshman but will graduate in June from rival Centennial High because of a common occurrence in Howard County: redistricting.

His younger brother, Eric, a freshman at Centennial, faces the reverse situation. He could be transferred to Chris' former school next fall in the latest round of redistricting to fill Marriott's Ridge -- the county's 12th high school, which will open next fall in Marriottsville.

"I really don't want to leave," Eric Peters said. "I really don't want to pick up and go to another school. I don't want to start all over."

The school system has redistricted in varying degrees nearly every year for the past 15 years. With every redistricting in Howard -- where rapid growth has driven the county to build 24 schools in the past 14 years -- compelling stories from families such as the Peterses are told from every corner of the county.

In some cases, that means siblings will attend different high schools or the same group of children will again be shuffled to another school. For the most part, parents and students want to stay put and keep communities and friendships together.

It is a harsh reality that is not lost on Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, who is scheduled to present his boundary recommendations to the school board Oct. 28.

"It's one of the most emotionally charged issues the school board and the school system face," Cousin said. "We do it carefully, prudently and have a rational basis for the decisions that are made."

Cousin added: "All of them have compelling stories. Each of them has legitimacy. The question is when we open a new facility, we do it to relieve overcrowding and address some of the issues that people come to us for."

One of those compelling stories belongs to Joan Orcutt's daughter, Kendra, a freshman at River Hill High School in Clarksville, who repeatedly has been moved because of previous boundary adjustments and faces the prospect of changing schools again next year. Under one of the two redistricting proposals, Kendra would attend Glenelg High next fall, the sixth school she would be attending in 10 years.

Like other children in the Triadelphia Woods neighborhood, Kendra was first redistricted in third grade, when she was moved to Triadelphia Ridge Elementary from West Friendship. Though Kendra attended Mount View Middle School for sixth and seventh grades, she finished eighth grade at Folly Quarter Middle.

"Honestly, I don't have a problem that we might have to ever change schools," Joan Orcutt said. "My big problem is the fact that this same group of kids have continuously been moved."

"We don't have anything against Glenelg. It's the fact that these kids keep getting moved," she added. "Now that they are in high school, leave these kids alone for crying out loud."

For the Peters family and others living in the Worthington community in Ellicott City, it would be the second time in recent years that they could be hit by redistricting. When Reservoir High School opened in 2002, children from the neighborhood attending Mount Hebron High were moved to Centennial High.

What irks parents more is that the school board voted to redistrict the neighborhood to Centennial, knowing that the area could be moved back to Mount Hebron with the opening of the county's newest high school. Marriott's Ridge will open with freshmen and sophomores.

"My younger son watched what my older son went through," Tracey Peters said. Eric's "anxious. He's upset and I'm upset. I feel if a student started at one place, they have a right to stay."

Gene Mattingly watched his eldest daughter, Christine, go through a rough transition at Centennial after being moved from Mount Hebron without many of her friends.

Mattingly's son, Shane, is in the same spot as Eric Peters. And that makes Mattingly angry, so much so that he and his wife are considering moving so that Shane can stay in the Centennial High School district.

"I understand the issue with populating the new school, and I understand it's important to take sophomores so that there's at least two classes," he said. "What bothers me is that this is the second time it's happening to the Worthington community."

Then there is the Fairways community, off Centennial Lane in Ellicott City, that is also lobbying to keep their neighborhood in the Centennial district. Under both plans, about 70 students are slated to move to Marriott's Ridge by the time the school has a senior class in the 2007-2008 school year.

Hillary Stishan's two sons would be split up next year as a result, leaving sophomore Dave at Centennial and moving freshman Eric to Marriott's Ridge.

School competition could fuel sibling rivalries, causing tension in the family, Stishan said.

These families, along with others in the Worthington and Fairways communities, will give the five-member school board alternative proposals to keep their neighborhoods in place.

Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, said the board will look for solutions that don't move neighborhoods or families repeatedly. At the same time, that means "we'll have to weigh the lesser of the evils," she said.

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