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Marches, letters, emotions: School redistricting plan roils a suburban Maryland county

Protesters gather outside the Howard County school board headquarters to show their opposition to a major redistricting plan. (Donna St. George/The Washington Post)

The battle in the Maryland suburbs started shortly after Howard County announced a school redistricting plan far more ambitious than many had expected.

It didn’t just aspire to relieve crowded schools. In a county that prides itself on diversity and inclusion, it aimed for further socioeconomic integration of schools, so that the neediest students were more spread out, easing concentrations of poverty.

But it came with a major shift: Nearly 7,400 children across income levels — about 1 in 8 of the county’s public school students — would be reassigned in the next year, many facing longer bus rides and some headed to schools with lower test scores or lesser reputations.

The public furor was intense and nonstop.

In Howard — nestled between Baltimore and Washington and ranked among the nation’s most affluent counties — parents led a protest outside the Mall in Columbia in September, urging that the plan be scrapped.

Days later, they turned out near school board headquarters, many dressed in green T-shirts saying they should not have to choose between community and equity. Passing drivers sounded their horns as demonstrators held up signs reading “Kids Before Politics” and “Keep Community Together.”

Residents have written hundreds of letters to county and school officials and signed up to testify in such large numbers that one school board hearing was extended over multiple days. Emotions have run high. Students have spoken out.

“You have no right to discard how I feel because you want to balance out your numbers,” said Ayanna Gordon, who introduced herself at a public hearing as “a real 11-year-old” and described her adjustment to middle school and her objections to doing it a second time.

Bettina Wachter, a single parent in Valley Mede, said many students in her neighborhood walk to school.

“Why use the money to bus children?” she asked. “Why not use the money to provide additional resources at struggling schools — for example, to hire more teaching assistants and provide resources such as laptops or tablets to underprivileged kids who may not have access to that?”

The dismay and upheaval has sparked debate about race and class and privilege, about achievement gaps and neighborhoods and whether Howard County is really integrated. And about what it means to be segregated.

“Segregation is present whenever a group of people — whether they are a minority or disadvantaged or otherwise perceived as different — are shunted into a corner,” Krista Threefoot, who has a daughter in the county’s highest-poverty school, told the school board one recent night. She says the plan put forward by the Howard schools superintendent is not perfect, but she supports it. “Our schools are segregated,” she said. “They don’t need to be.”

Residents point out the clash seems at odds with some of Howard’s history. Columbia, its largest community, was founded in the 1960s on principles of equality and integration; it gained wide attention for welcoming residents of all races, incomes and religions.

But some also note that Howard took years to desegregate after the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 2012, the school board apologized for having segregated schools before and after the Brown ruling. More recently, the county has grappled with racist incidents, including one at its only majority-white high school.

Amid the redistricting imbroglio, overtly racist letters sent to county officials were published by a national magazine. “Blacks destroy school systems and schools,” one missive said. County officials described the sentiments as horrifying. Some have questioned the authenticity of some letters.

“It’s a twisted reality if someone made it up, and it’s a twisted reality if someone feels that way,” said Willie Flowers, president of the Howard County branch of the NAACP. He said it “knocks down a few pegs” a county that sees itself as “progressive and uplifting and full of love and civility.”

Flowers said the concentration of poverty in some schools is a byproduct of housing and zoning policies. The intense public reaction, he said, stems from “middle-class families who fear that their children will be in school with what they perceive as students who don’t achieve.” But, he said, “the students aren’t broken. The system that created them living in poverty is broken.”

The struggle comes amid concerns about the re-segregation of some U.S. schools, with some school systems embracing boundary changes as part of the solution. In the Washington region, Montgomery County recently hired a consultant to conduct a districtwide analysis looking at attendance zones, with a hearing set for Monday, but no countywide changes are currently in the works.

School boundary questions touch off debates about race, income, equity

School integration plans based on socioeconomics are increasingly common since a 2007 Supreme Court decision made it harder to use race as a factor, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University.

The income-minded approach was expected to be less controversial, she said, but it is not clear that is true. Still, she said, such efforts are worthwhile. “The benefits of racial and economic diversity are incredibly compelling,” she said.

Howard County Superintendent Michael Martirano described his plan in an August announcement as a “turning point” for his high-performing system of 58,000 students, adding more emphasis on equity concerns in attendance zone decisions.

Howard’s enrollment — among the state’s fastest-growing — is diverse: 36 percent white, 24 percent black, 22 percent Asian, 11 percent Hispanic and 6 percent multiracial.

But school to school, it is less diverse, and the percentage of students affected by poverty varies widely, with the highest rate (68 percent) at Stevens Forest Elementary in Columbia and some of the lowest rates (below 5 percent) in the western part of the county. Countywide, 22.5 percent of students come from low-income families, and the goal is to bring schools closer to that average.

Research shows students from all income groups benefit from cultural and socioeconomic diversity in their classrooms, the superintendent said, citing improvements in creativity, motivation, deep learning, critical thinking and problem-solving. Diverse settings also help improve leadership skills and prepare students for a global environment, he said.

“We need to do this because it is the right thing to do,” said Martirano, who is in his third year as the district’s leader. Nearly all Howard schools get the highest marks — four or five stars — on the state’s education report card, he said.

Under the plan, the number of elementary schools with more than 50 percent of students affected by poverty would drop from 12 to six, he said.

The school board, which voted to start the redistricting process in January, has considered the issue broadly, going beyond the initial proposal and a feasibility study to discuss a range of other possibilities suggested by board members. Rising high school seniors are exempt from the changes, and the board voted to exempt rising juniors, too.

A preliminary decision is scheduled for Monday, with a final vote on any boundary changes slated for Nov. 21.

The Howard County Council jumped into the fray in August, passing a resolution Oct. 7 to support efforts to “lawfully integrate” schools through the boundary process. It noted that graduation rates for students from low-income families have dipped to 78 percent, and are far lower than for their peers from higher-earning families (95 percent).

Council Chair Christiana Mercer Rigby (D), who has lamented that schools have been increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status, said she is proud the measure prevailed. “It’s not often done where a public body, or a majority of a public body, says we should integrate,” she said.

Parent James Cecil said he empathizes with families who are attached to their schools. He loves his children’s elementary school, which he credits for helping his family understand his son’s special needs, and would be heartbroken to have to leave.

But he wore a black T-shirt that said #DefendThePlan at a hearing and called the decision a watershed moment.

“Our schools are overcrowded and our schools are still segregated,” 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education, he said. “To address one without addressing the other would only further the divide between the families of our county.”

A 2014 study by the Maryland Equity Project, at the University of Maryland’s College of Education, found that students in Howard, Montgomery and Harford counties were the most likely in the state to face economic segregation. The finding relied on 2010 data, and it is unclear whether that has changed, said David Blazar, an assistant professor and faculty director of the project.

Some critics of the superintendent’s plan point out it would not lead to major changes in socioeconomic integration at most schools.

About a dozen of the system’s 74 schools would see a shift of 10 or more percentage points in their rates of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty. Fifty-seven schools would see a change of less than five points.

School officials describe the plan as a starting point — and say it takes into account transportation cost, school building capacity and plans for another high school.

Hemant Sharma, a pediatrician and father of three who is a leader in the recently formed Howard County Families for Education Improvement, argues the minimal change does not get at the root causes of the achievement gap. His group is against the plan but says it supports equity and favors redistricting to ease crowding.

“No one would argue that it is not important to decrease pockets of poverty, but there are better ways to do that than drastically moving over 7,000 children without any significant improvement in their educational opportunities and perhaps harm posed to them,” he said.

Sharma said that longer distances to school could mean a drop in parental involvement, extracurricular participation or attendance when students miss their bus. And he takes great exception to what he calls “a false narrative” that Howard is segregated.

He sees Howard as integrated and says early-childhood interventions are important in reducing the achievement gap.

“This is definitely the most contentious I’ve seen our county — the most polarized — which is of grave concern, given that Howard County has always been a national model for diversity and unity,” said Sharma, who grew up in Columbia.

Other critics have pleaded the case for neighborhood schools. Some dub the plan “involuntary busing” or “social engineering.” Some parents say they bought their homes based on school assignments. Some say they will move if it’s all upended.

School officials say that on average, students affected by the proposed rezoning would travel an extra four miles, round-trip, on the bus each day. They have estimated additional transportation costs at $1.1 million the first year.

Some parents and students object to reassignments during critical high school years, saying it would lead to more stress and less sleep for bleary-eyed teenagers. Some mentioned risks of suicide and other mental health concerns.

Tenth-grader Jacob Hauf told the school board that his 10-minute bus ride would extend to as much as 45 minutes under the plan. He urged that he and others be allowed to stay at Mount Hebron High, where he is on the cross-country and track teams.

“We have diversity and equity,” he said, with a student body in which students of color are a majority.

The issue has had other fallout as passions flare.

On Sept. 16, police learned that a River Hill High School student had posted a death threat against the superintendent on social media. The threat — related to the redistricting proposal — had been made a few weeks earlier as “a joke,” not a legitimate threat, a police spokesman said.

Later that month, Kate Amara, a reporter for Baltimore’s WBAL-TV who lives in Howard County, was criticized for weighing in against redistricting in her area, rather than remaining impartial, after she sent an email that included references to her position as a journalist.

Dan Joerres, the station’s general manager, said Amara had acknowledged it was inappropriate, adding that she would not report on the story or related stories.

Steven Keller, a father of two who put together a popular Facebook page for the opposition, said the superintendent’s plan saddles students with easing problems with crowded schools and concentrations of needy students created by the county’s past housing and zoning decisions.

“We should consider school redistricting as a last resort and not as the go-to option that lets county leaders off the hook from putting in the hard work to come up with longer-term solutions to these serious problems,” he said.

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