In Columbia, the planned community where subsidized apartments and single-family homes sit side by side, the more affluent have been leaving for bigger, newer homes, sending their children to the modern, better-equipped schools built for them.
Left behind are schools that once were the gems of Howard County, now coping with aging buildings, fewer computers and higher turnover of children and staff.
In a school system widely noted as one of Maryland's best--with first-rate test scores, decent facilities and little internal bickering--complaints are growing: Schools may be good, but they are not good enough. And some are far better than others.
New schools have new textbooks, new playgrounds and Internet access everywhere. But at older ones such as Guilford Elementary, monkey bars are rusty and classrooms don't have computers. At Owen Brown Middle, children complain that there's little logic to whether hot or cold air blows into the windowless rooms. At Wilde Lake Middle, parents have complained about the quality of learning and many withdrew their children this year, sending them to one of the new schools.
It's an old story--former shining stars of suburbia struggle to age gracefully while new communities get fresh facilities and hard-charging middle-class families. Now it's playing out in this city built upon the ideal of equity for rich and poor, in this county known for having the money and talent to handle its problems.
While officials say they hear parents' concerns--the superintendent and county executive this week created an independent committee to study inequities among schools--they say they can't keep up with demands for more, better, now.
"They don't get it," said Barry Budish, who has a child at crowded Waterloo Elementary in Columbia and lobbies for new construction. "People want it fixed now."
Although the issue has been portrayed as haves vs. have-nots, it's not necessarily a problem that money can easily fix. For example, the Board of Education gives struggling schools extra resources and renovates regularly. In many ways, it's as much a matter of whether parents think their child's school is adequately educating him or her as whether it actually is.
The county's growing debate over equity among schools boiled over earlier this year at Wilde Lake Middle School in central Columbia, where nearly half the student body is black, Asian or Hispanic and one-fourth is eligible for government-subsidized meals. Many parents complained that the school was unruly and its teaching suspect, in part because it had so many struggling students.
"My child's instructor has no control of the class, and in the 90-minute block . . . 10 minutes of actual instruction occurred," one couple wrote the board in March.
"When students are in the [gifted and talented] program that do not belong there, the class becomes watered down and unacceptable for many highly able students," another parent wrote. "The school will not compete academically . . . unless the ratio of low-performing students is lowered."
In fact, test scores at Wilde Lake are above average for Howard. But good principals had been pulled to open new schools, often taking teachers with them. Suspensions had fallen but were still high. And the rumor mill was spinning so fast, other parents figured there must be some there there.
So when a new school opened farther south in Fulton with a less diverse student body, a handpicked staff and Internet access in every classroom, a group of Wilde Lake parents decided it was time for their children to go.
This fall, 55 children, nearly all white and from a single neighborhood, boarded a bus their parents paid for and unloaded at the brand-new Lime Kiln Elementary.
The exodus drew wide attention and charges of white flight. "I think many of the parents wanted an excuse to leave," said parent Rick Wilson. "Some of the people were clearly diversity-challenged."
Parents who withdrew their children from Wilde Lake and were contacted for this story did not return calls or declined interviews, saying they resent implications they fled for any reason but the quality of education.
Others defend the school's academics. When Wilson was deciding where to send his daughter this year, he and his wife listened nervously to neighbors' concerns. Then he visited Wilde Lake and met "articulate and bright" teachers and happy children.
Sure, Wilson, who is now PTSA president, would like more computers. But, he said, "if you look at all the stats, the school is improving."
Complaints about equity and school quality are loudest in Columbia, where the population has become more transient, unlike the rest of Howard, and the share of poor students has risen twice as fast as elsewhere.
Michele Williams, a Jeffers Hill Elementary parent, told County Council members this month that at schools like hers "the staff has to work extra hard to maintain--and just maintaining is not okay."
To some degree school officials say, What can we do? The county allots only so much money. Test scores are correlated with family income, and they can't control where pockets of poverty develop.
Politicians representing Columbia have suggested changes in elections and the budget process to make the board more accountable and busing to even out populations. But board members are skeptical that residents would be mollified. Chairman Karen B. Campbell said perceptions of inequities are natural. "We didn't get all those cliches for nothing: 'The grass is always greener.' "
In the case of Wilde Lake, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey contends that what people perceived to be wrong with the school for the most part wasn't. "There were concerns about discipline--discipline was not a problem. There were concerns about the physical plant--we just renovated the school. We made some personnel changes and got rid of people who were weak teachers."
Nonetheless, Hickey said he has learned his lesson about sapping star power from struggling schools. Now he limits the number of teachers a departing principal can take.
In some ways, the current debate shows how Columbia has changed since the first residents came for Jim Rouse's dream of a multicultural Shangri-La. People still do, but more come for the reasons people move anywhere: Schools. Safety. Location. Housing values.
"When we went from being a young, growing community with a pioneer spirit to a place with 100,000 people, things changed," said Columbia Association archivist Barbara Kellner. People wanted to move up, and in Columbia, moving up has meant, for the most part, moving out.
Like Wilde Lake, Columbia's Guilford Elementary has become one of the poster children for inequity. Its textbooks are relatively old, the playground basketball hoops lack nets, and the PTA fund-raises desperately. But many staff and parents don't want that to overshadow what the school does have.
Because its test scores are low and poverty is high, Guilford gets a lot of extras--nearly a dozen more teachers, smaller classes, an extended-day program and pre-kindergarten, a social worker, a psychologist and a guidance counselor. Next year, the school will have new textbooks and Internet access in every room.
The community is filled with dedicated parents and energetic children. Look at the fifth-grade gifted and talented students, who spent two months assembling 2,400 K'nex pieces into a roller coaster, using only a picture as a model, and videotaping themselves weekly to evaluate their teamwork. The kindergartners make Play-Doh dinners like kindergartners everywhere, and third-graders ranking rivers by length have gotten number order down pat.
Their teacher, Kathleen Wragg, would like computers so children could research their science projects in class, more space to scoot between 30 little bodies, new desks and more than eight dictionaries for the room. Truth be told, though, she'd just as much like her students to be less chatty.
"There's always pie in the sky," she said. "But I feel like I have most of what I need to help the children learn."