Dance's magnet plan boosts art, trims some offerings in Baltimore County schools

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
More arts and music magnets for Baltimore County high schoolers.

Baltimore County school officials will strengthen arts programs at three high schools but phase out magnet programs at three elementary schools as part of a reorganization of magnet offerings over the next five to seven years.

The George Washington Carver Center for the Arts in Towson, which moved into a new $88 million facility in 2012, will add instrumental music to its course offerings. Patapsco High School in Dundalk will phase in a literary arts program and Milford Mill Academy in Windsor Mill will boost its current arts class offerings.

Superintendent Dallas Dance said the county is known for its arts programs, which have received national recognition in both music and the visual arts.

"If that is what you are known for, don't change the brand, expand it," he said.

Changes, announced at a school board meeting Tuesday, will start in the 2016-2017 school year and are part of a major realignment of the more than 100 magnet offerings throughout the county. Dance said he will move slowly because of budget constraints.

"I would love to expand the magnet portfolio tomorrow," he said. "I want to take a very strategic look at it."

Baltimore County has some magnet schools, such as Carver, where students must apply to attend. Elsewhere, magnet programs exist within a regular neighborhood school. They provide a special academic focus and are open to students outside of the traditional school boundaries.

Officials want to redesign the system's magnet offerings to provide equitable access for students across the county. Dance said he plans to divide the county into central, eastern and western regions, and wants to provide the same magnets in each of the three areas of the sprawling county. School system figures indicate that of a student population of about 110,000, nearly 13,000 took part in magnet programs in 2013-14.

A task force made up of 90 members of the public worked about a year to come up with a list of findings for the reorganization. A report, given to Dance last month, has not been made public, although officials said it would be released soon.

The process has been watched so closely that students and parents at some schools, including Eastern Technical High School in Essex, Cromwell Valley Elementary in Towson and Lutherville Laboratory Elementary, protested at board meetings based on rumors about potential changes. Dance kept the names of task force members secret because, he said, they feared they would be overwhelmed by people attempting to pressure them.

Dance is making four recommendations to the board, which are expected to be approved as early as next month.

He wants to phase out of magnet programs at Lutherville Laboratory, Halstead Academy in Towson and Church Lane Elementary in Randallstown. Dance said only a small number of students attend those schools from outside their neighborhood zone, and some concentrate on technology — a focus that's being phased into every elementary school next year. Lutherville has a math and science focus.

Dance also wants to set up a health science magnet at Old Court Middle School that would feed into a similar program at nearby Randallstown High School.

And the superintendent is recommending the board eliminate an automotive program at Eastern Technical because it duplicates a program at Sollers Point Technical, a vocational high school opened two years ago near Eastern in the southeast part of the county. Dance said only 11 students are enrolled in the program at Eastern and the change will open up more spots for students on waiting lists who want to study health and information technology.

Under his plan Cromwell Valley would continue as a magnet school, although the current focus of the magnet — technology — will change. He said he would get input from the community to determine a new focus, and also intends to draw boundaries within about a mile of the school for students who want to attend. Those changes wouldn't take place until the 2017-2018 school year.

At Tuesday's board meeting, Kasey Caruthers, a parent of a first-grader at Cromwell Valley, said enrollment is likely to decline while the county takes a year to do a study to determine boundaries for the school's slots for neighborhood students. She said the school is losing some of its top teachers as the enrollment drops.

"It is unfortunate and disheartening," she said.

Although dramatic changes are not planned for the next year, the system is expected to make the changes in subsequent years with far- reaching implications in determining who attends magnet programs.

The changes to the arts education high schools would significantly boost spots for students who want to study the arts, although Carver would remain the only magnet that is entirely focused on the arts. Parents have complained that if their students don't get into Carver — considered one of the more prestigious arts schools in Maryland — their only other option is a long commute to Patapsco.

Dance said system Chief Academic Officer Verletta White will work with the task force to set a uniform selection process and provide rules on when the county will provide transportation to students who attend magnet schools. Currently, the system does not provide transportation to all magnet schools.

Dance also wants to change system policy so that only the board has the authority to determine major changes to magnet programs.

For the tenth year in a row, Baltimore County schools was named one of the Best Communities for Music Education by the National Association for Music Merchants Foundation. Its student writers, artists and musicians are regularly named Young Arts finalists and win Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards national medals.

Music classes are mandatory and year long for all kindergarten through eighth-grade students. The school system says it employs more music teachers per pupil than any other Maryland public school system. High school students can choose among music and art offerings including courses in electronic music, world music and Advanced Placement classes in music theory and the visual arts.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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