Schools prepare to shift pupils

The latest round of redistricting is to affect middle and elementary grades

October 01, 2006|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN REPORTER

Laura Munns understands that Howard County's school system needs to move students around to fill its new northeastern elementary school next fall.

But when the Ellicott City mother talks to her twin fourth-grade boys about switching from Waverly Elementary School to St. John's Lane, she sees in their eyes the importance of friends, teachers and familiar routines.

"They are at a very fragile developmental time," Munns said. "This is really a life-changing event for them."

The school system is developing another round of what it calls "attendance area adjustments" - also known as redistricting - a process that proves year after year to be a complicated balance between crunching the numbers and showing sympathy for the students.

"We've received e-mails where people talk about how painful it is," Joel A. Gallihue, manager of school planning, said at a public meeting last week. But he said the addition of 25 new schools in 15 years and the changing demographics of specific communities make it necessary. "We all want to make sure we make the best use of our facilities," he said.

Under the most recent proposals, 105 pupils from Northfield, 453 from St. John's Lane and 193 from Worthington would go to the new elementary school.

Another 35 pupils from St. John's Lane would go to Centennial Lane and 33 from Northfield would go to Thunder Hill. Hollifield Station would send 153 students to fill the space at St. John's Lane, and Waverly would send 147.

Other adjustments not related to the new school involve moving 84 pupils from Bellows Spring to Waterloo and 66 pupils from Bryant Woods to Running Brook to make sure all the elementary schools are near capacity, but not significantly over capacity.

At the middle school level, a shift of 118 pupils is proposed from Elkridge Landing to Mayfield Woods, and 99 Glenwood pupils are to go to Folly Quarter.

There are no high school adjustments proposed this year.

The process began with a feasibility study that was reviewed by the school board and school staff members. An Attendance Area Committee is using that document to make a preliminary adjustment plan, and it will advise the superintendent before he makes a proposal to the school board Oct. 26.

After several work sessions and a public hearing, the board will approve a final version of attendance areas Nov. 21.

The plans are under discussion, Gallihue said, and are built on 11 criteria, ranging from costs to busing issues to the effect on pupils.

Generally, the school system tries not to move the same students more than once at each educational level (elementary, middle and high school). The system tries to use geographical and neighborhood boundaries, works to ensure that schools' demographic makeup and academic performance remain similar, and considers how neighborhoods feed into middle and high schools.

Rarely do all of the factors line up perfectly, Gallihue said. "Every move you make pushes up against another."

That's when parents, students and community members often get passionate about protecting their "polygon," or numbered geographic area.

Geography can be a particularly difficult issue, as schools are built where land is available - not necessarily where populations are growing. Some students end up going past a closer school to get to their assigned location.

This year, numerous e-mails from families in Wheatfield and nearby areas between Route 100 and Montgomery Road have asked that their children, who were redistricted to Waterloo a couple of years ago, be redistricted again to the nearby new elementary school. The redistricting committee has not included that move in its suggestions.

Susan Hinton of Ellicott City is concerned that pupils will be moved from Waverly Elementary to St. John's Lane prematurely because they may have to move again in a middle school realignment in 2012. Hinton's son is in third grade and her daughter is in second, and they are "really making friends that go from one year to the next," she said.

If her children are moved to a new elementary, go on to middle school, then are sent to a new middle school, "we're looking at two extra times of having to make new friends," she said. "I can understand the tough position [of the system]. I want to make sure they're looking at the big picture in our case."

Mark Corbett disagrees with the plan to move 33 pupils along Columbia Road across U.S. 29 to Thunder Hill. Unlike moving 100 pupils or more in other areas, Corbett said his second-grader will be among a small number of children in each grade from the old school.

Those children will be separated from friends from neighborhood activities such as Cub Scouts or swim teams, he said. And they will be isolated again when they go to the middle school fed by their community.

"They need to look a little deeper into how it affects the children," he said.

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