A plan to shift students from Arundel to Meade High prompts an angry outcry

Parents fight redistricting proposal

February 28, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun Reporter

LaTonya McKellery would rather get a second job to pay for her two daughters to go to private school than send them to Meade High School.

For the six years she has lived in the Seven Oaks community in Odenton, McKellery has filled out transfer forms to enroll her children into elementary and middle schools that she felt were academically stronger than those in the Meade feeder system.

A South Carolina native, she said she saw her family and other families of color steered toward inferior schools, jobs and services.

"I want the best for my children. I do not want them to have to do with less. I lived through that growing up in the South, and it's happening again," she said.

The McKellerys are among hundreds of families in Seven Oaks who are fighting a redistricting plan that would shift 344 students from Arundel to Meade to alleviate crowding at Arundel. It is a battle some of them are launching for the third time in 12 years.

With the backing of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the parents accuse the school system of trying to resegregate schools by drawing attendance boundaries that funnel minorities into lower-performing schools in the Meade High School feeder system.

Arundel High is 31 percent African-American, and Meade High is 55 percent African-American.

School officials have denied that race has played a role in the proposal, maintaining that their goal is to clear space at Arundel High. The school, which is more than 300 students over capacity, would remain crowded even after a new science wing is built if some students aren't moved out, schools planning director Chuck Yocum said.

At a meeting Monday night, more than three dozen Seven Oaks residents lobbied the school board to reject Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell's proposal.

They filed into an auditorium at Meade High School, walking past a mural that said: "There is more that draws us together than drives us apart."

The Meade feeder system, which includes nine elementary schools and two middle schools, is more than half minority. It serves Fort Meade, two public housing complexes and other nearby neighborhoods that are filling up quickly with professional and upper-middle class families who say they bought their homes on the promise that their children would attend Arundel High School in Gambrills.

"Arundel High is Seven Oaks High," parent Edward Vazquez told school board members. The proposal "has driven a wedge between the superintendent and Seven Oaks. We purchased our home based on that fact that our three sons would attend Arundel High."

This latest struggle is not pleasant deja vu for those who had fought redistricting in 1995, when the district floated a similar proposal to shift Seven Oaks children from Arundel to Meade.

In two years of public hearings, their lawyers argued that impact fees they had paid as part of their home price had funded improvements in schools in the Arundel feeder system. Since the residents had paid for those improvements, lawyers said at the time, the residents should benefit from them.

"Our money flows to Odenton. We shop in Odenton. Our children play in Odenton ... not on Fort Meade," said Zoe Draughon, a leading critic of the school system's 1995 redistricting plan.

In May 1997, the State Board of Education ruled that the school system's redistricting plan was not "sound educational policy."

Despite the ruling, the school system tried to redraw Seven Oaks' attendance boundaries again in 2000, but backed down after parents threatened to sue and take the matter to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

Now the system is trying for a third time.

"The 1997 decision pertained to one process undertaken by the board at the time, and we are confident that all the policies and procedures have been followed in this case," school system spokesman Bob Mosier said. At the crux of Seven Oaks parents' concerns is a belief that the quality of education at Meade High and Arundel High is not comparable.

Meade High has long suffered from a poor public image, fueled by media reports of fights at the school and low state test scores.

About 43 percent of Meade students passed the state algebra test last spring, and 52 percent of students passed the state English test. The portion of Arundel students who passed those exams were 61 percent and 68 percent, respectively. A third of graduating seniors from Meade go on to a four-year college, compared with 43 percent from Arundel.

But the impending base realignment and closure process that could infuse the Fort Meade area with top-level engineers and scientists and create at least 14,000 white-collar jobs has spurred school officials to beef up the academic program at Meade High. Meade has expanded its college preparatory track with more than 20 Advanced Placement courses, the International Baccalaureate program and a pre-engineering program.

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