Options for new school districts down to final four

Catonsville Times
The public allowed to participate in last night's redistricting meeting

Residents of southwest Baltimore County turned out in force Wednesday night to hear where the area's young children may be going to school in the fall.

The public information session, hosted by the Southwest Boundary Committee, was part of series of meetings to consider new school boundaries in the area.

More than 100 parents and concerned community members packed into the cafeteria at Catonsville High School Wednesday night, some with signs proclaiming their support for their school, to hear how Baltimore County Public Schools may redraw the map for the southwest area's elementary school boundaries.

The Southwest Boundary Committee, made up of parents, school faculty and community members, has been meeting every other Wednesday evening since Sept. 16 to come up with recommendations on new boundary lines for area elementary schools to accommodate the construction of three new, larger elementary school buildings in the area and one addition to a fourth elementary school.

Wednesday's meeting was the only meeting open to public participation and attendees filled the Catonsville High cafeteria to the point that those who arrived late had to stand.

At the session, which began at 7 p.m. and lasted past 8:30 p.m., the public was given a summary of the work the committee has done so far and invited to discuss the four options the group had narrowed the choices down to at the last meeting, held on Nov. 11.

While the boundaries for 11 of the 13 elementary schools in the 21227 and 21228 ZIP codes are under consideration, most of the focus of debate has been on changes to the Catonsville schools. Boundaries for schools south of Catonsville were largely similar in all four options presented to the public at Wednesday's meeting, and the each option included the same change — rezoning several blocks now in the Johnnycake Elementary School district to Westchester Elementary.

That change would mean drawing students from the area to the northwest of the intersection of Baltimore National Pike and North Rolling Road from Johnnycake, which is currently about 30 percent over capacity, to Westchester Elementary, which will be getting a 200-seat addition.

Donna Johnson, the mother of two fifth-graders currently enrolled at Johnnycake as well as the principal's administrative assistant, said her house is spared from being redistricted to Westchester only by the side of the street it's on. Her neighbors' young children across the street, she said, could likely be sent to Westchester.

The change would mean more than just having to meet a whole new group of peers in middle school. Most of Westchester goes on to Catonsville Middle while those students from north of Baltimore National Pike move up to Southwest Academy, she said.

Taking those students away from Johnnycake would also disrupt the school's tightknit community, she said.

"We are the children's stability," she said of the school, a Title I school that offers students and families special resources. "To rip that away from the kids, it'll just traumatize the kids."

Having only one boundary option for Johnnycake in each of the maps currently being considered by the committee, she added, doesn't feel like an option at all for parents of Johnnycake students. Rather than send students to Westchester, she said, she would rather the school be left as it is, even if that means staying over capacity.

"Everybody thinks about their community," she said. "But what about our community?"

More than a half hour before Wednesday's meeting began, many members of the Hillcrest community began to crowd the door to the cafeteria, some holding signs voicing their support for keeping neighborhoods currently zoned to Hillcrest intact.

"Our neighborhood has a lot of roots in Hillcrest," said Lance Byrd, a Newburg Heights resident who organized a website, wearehillcrest.org, and had yard signs made in support of the boundary option that would keep his neighborhood zoned to Hillcrest.

In the days and weeks prior to the meetings, many neighborhoods around the area had already begun mobilizing support behind the boundary changes they would most like to see, and against those changes they feared could hurt their school or their community.

Fellow Newburg Heights resident Natalia Panfile helped Byrd travel door to door in the neighborhood encouraging people to put het signs, which read "We are Hillcrest," in their yard. Like many Hillcrest parents and community members who attended Wednesday's meeting, Panfile said she is worried that her neighborhood may be removed from a school district she considers an important part of their neighborhood.

"Probably the biggest reason we moved there is for the community and the schools," the mother of a Hillcrest first-grader said.

Keeping their neighborhood in the Hillcrest zone, Byrd and Panfile said, would also help their kids in the long run. Rezoning to Catonsville Elementary would mean that many of their elementary school friends would go on to Arbutus Middle School while their children are districted for Catonsville Middle.

Since the start of the redistricting process, the committee, under the guidance of Matt Cropper, from Cropper GIS, the firm the school system has hired to lead the process, has looked at more than a dozen possible options for new school boundaries.

The committee will meet next on Dec. 9, when the group will be presented with the results of a survey available now to area residents concerning the redistricting options.

For information about the boundary change process or to access the boundary change survey, go to bcps.org/construction/southwest.

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