Harford tries to balance schools, housing pressure

Parents want communities to be intact when lines redrawn

December 04, 2005|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Collin Little has friends throughout his neighborhood, Colonial Acres. They ride the bus to Ring Factory Elementary School, sit together in class and play at each others' houses after school. The 6-year-old's mother would like to see them progress through school together, as well.

"We're a close community," Rhonda Little said as she walked Collin back from the bus stop on a recent weekday afternoon.

A proposal presented to the school board last week to funnel students to the new Patterson Mill Middle and High School complex would split their Bel Air community virtually in half.

Collin's street - Saratoga Drive - is one of the new boundary lines. He still would later attend Bel Air Middle School, but many of his classmates and friends who live south of his street would attend Patterson Mill.

In all, hundreds of high school and middle school students would attend different schools under the preliminary proposal, which redraws the county school system's lines most significantly around Bel Air. The changes would be staggered, beginning in the 2007-2008 school year, when Patterson Mill is scheduled to open.

Largely left out of the discussion, however, were the many changes to the elementary-to-middle feeder patterns that the addition of a school would create.

Nine elementary schools would add another to the list of the middle schools that they send their pupils to, including six that previously only sent children to one middle school. Edgewood, Emmorton, Forest Lakes, Jarrettsville, Magnolia and Ring Factory elementary schools each would send pupils to two middle schools.

Edgewood Middle, which has one of the county's highest numbers of suspensions related to violence, also would receive pupils from two more schools than it does now. Figures on the number of pupils who would be affected by the changes to the Edgewood pipeline were not made available.

Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas noted that elementary school boundary lines were not being redrawn. But a new middle school needs children to fill its seats and relieve the stress on other, crowded middle schools.

"This does feel like a lot of change, but it's not an attempt to redistrict elementary school children," Haas said.

The proposal, which comes with two slight variations, will be debated and possibly tweaked over the next several months. The board will hold forums in March and make a final decision in April.

School officials said that they were fielding many calls from parents, and that no glaring problems had been identified. Most pertained to personal interests, such as parents who did not want their children to attend a new school.

"I think the plan will work well," said board member Patrick L. Hess. "There might be some changes. [But] I think all in all, the plan is very good. All our middle and high schools will be under 100 percent capacity. And that's the best thing for the kids."

Despite the fracturing of Colonial Acres, the superintendent's technical advisory committee took great care to preserve communities, Joe Licata, assistant superintendent for operations, said during Monday's presentation at Aberdeen High.

While a computer program mapped out the county's students and indicated where the new boundaries would be best served based on population, Licata said the program didn't consider such factors as geography and neighborhoods.

That's where members of the committee intervened. He said that in many instances, the orientation of boundary lines was changed for that reason.

"Our final rendition is the rendition that gives us the least amount of moves to fill the school at Patterson Mill," he told the board.

But that issue may have been unavoidable in the county's dense central core. While losing part of its current attendance area to Patterson Mill, Bel Air High would receive hundreds of students from Fallston and C. Milton Wright high schools, and Wright would see its boundary drawn in tighter from the northwest.

The "domino" effect on the rest of the county was largely minimal.

"When you have a population that dense right around the school, it means fewer people farther out are going to be affected," Haas said.

Many of the changes were either predetermined or based on planned expansion. For example, the extension of North Harford middle and high schools' boundaries was decided in 2002 and goes hand-in-hand with a planned expansion there of nearly 400 seats.

Significant expansions at Aberdeen, Bel Air and Edgewood high schools also are planned.

Statistics showed that the new boundaries and expansions would put most county high schools below 92 percent capacity through 2009. Seven of the county's nine high schools are at or above 100 percent capacity now.

The changes would be staged by grades over a period extending through the 2009-2010 school year. Current high school students will either have graduated by the time the changes take effect or have the option of "grandfathering" themselves into their current school district.

Little said she will keep a close eye on Bel Air High. She was intrigued by the possibility of Collin going to Patterson Mill, and she said she may go back to work so the family can afford to send Collin to private school if facility improvements aren't made at Bel Air.

"I understand it's not going to be perfect for everybody, but they don't have to split the neighborhood right in half," she said. "We want [Collin] to stay with his neighbors."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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