Redistricting frustrations

Board members seek overhaul after battle over moving students

April 27, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,SUN REPORTER

Some Anne Arundel County school board members are calling for an overhaul of the school system's "piecemeal" year-to-year redistricting method after a battle with Odenton parents.

This week, the board ceded to pleas to allow most students from the Seven Oaks community to remain at Arundel High, a vote that some said merely delayed the tougher decision on how to solve school crowding in West County.

"We just diluted the issue instead of dealing with it," said school board Vice President Eugene Peterson, who voted against the measure to leave Seven Oaks children at Arundel.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell had recommended moving 344 students from Arundel High in Gambrills to Meade High at Fort Meade to alleviate crowding at Arundel, which has nine portable classrooms to handle the overflow. He had said he was amenable to allowing next school year's juniors and seniors from Seven Oaks to stay at Arundel.

School board members sought to keep more Seven Oaks children at Arundel after hearing parents testify Tuesday night that their children would be academically and emotionally damaged by a move to a new school, and that their siblings in middle school who already had hopes of attending Arundel would be equally distressed.

School board member Ned Carey developed an amendment that allowed all Seven Oaks children attending Arundel to stay put and their siblings in MacArthur Middle to attend Arundel High. The only students who would move to Meade High would be MacArthur Middle School students from Seven Oaks without siblings at Arundel.

School planning officials estimated that the board's decision would affect fewer than two dozen students.

School board member Enrique Melendez, who approved the measure, said the board's decision this year could be rendered moot by a crush of families expected to move to the area through the Base Realignment and Closure process (BRAC) at Fort Meade and the opening of a new Gambrills Elementary. Such a well-predicted population shift ought to drive decisions on how boundaries are drawn, Melendez said.

"Traditionally in this county, we've looked at it piecemeal, and we've got to change the policy on that," he said. "Let's get a multiyear approach, as opposed to looking at it annually. The way we have it now, you've got different numbers from the county, the state, the school system. Different formulas. Different numbers. It's frustrating.

"But if we can really track the numbers," he said, "I think we can come up with a comprehensive plan to draw boundaries for schools."

Board President Tricia Johnson said the district needs "a wider lens" to consider boundaries. The predicted 5,000 new BRAC families could affect as many as four high schools, depending on where they settle, she said.

"We know where some things are projected to happen. If we have a huge crop of students, do we build a new school? Build an addition to an existing school? Do something temporarily?" Johnson said. "We have to make these decisions looking at the larger picture."

School board members are raising these questions after wrangling with one of the most complex boundary cases in at least a decade. Hundreds of families in Seven Oaks fought the redistricting plan, a battle some of them launched for the third time in 12 years.

After gaining the support of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the parents accused 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 black, and Meade High is 55 percent black.

For the six years LaTonya McKellery has lived in Seven Oaks, she has transferred her children into elementary and middle schools that she felt were stronger than those in the Meade feeder system. Now with her eldest, Briana, a freshman at Arundel High, McKellery led the community group's challenge.

"I went to the parent association meeting the other day at Meade, just to see what it was like to be a part of that school, and they were not welcoming," she told school board members of a group that recently won a national prize for its innovative membership drive. "If it was like that for me, how is it going to be for the children?"

Meade parents, students and alumni have said the Seven Oaks community has been vicious with its attack. Peterson, whose daughter is a Meade High graduate, reminded the parent group Tuesday night that minority students at Meade scored higher on college entrance exams than did those at Arundel. Meade is beginning an International Baccalaureate program, which Arundel lacks, and has a preparatory engineering track program, he said.

But there was no swaying the parents and students, who held up a row of green signs reading: "Arundel is our Choice!!!"

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