Redrawing school districts could redefine two Baltimore County communities

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

For Jimi Beaudet and others in the small Middle River enclave of Aero Acres, the redrawing of the school boundary lines has become a fight for the heart of their community.

Beaudet sees Aero Acres as a tiny gem of a place, a neighborhood of single-family, Cape Cod-style houses created during World War II to house airplane factory workers.

There's always been just one school for Aero Acres.

"It is very intimate because we all know each other," said Beaudet, the primary caregiver for two grandchildren. "It is almost like how we grew up. It is small-town America, even in a big city."

So the idea that the county school system might cleave the predominantly white enclave in half — shipping 69 Aero Acres children off to another school and bringing 129 students in from the predominately minority school across busy Route 40, has drawn parents together for a fight.

The proposal to redraw the districts around eight schools in eastern Baltimore County, recommended by a committee of parents and educators from each, would increase the minority population at Orems from 25 percent to 45 percent.

After the committee voted for the plan, Orems parents went around the committee process and submitted a proposal of their own. The plan would leave their district largely intact, but includes an oddly elongated zone for another school that would require students to travel past one school to get to another.

The debate is likely to come to a head on Tuesday night, when the Baltimore County school board is scheduled to vote on a plan.

As the district discussed redistricting proposals last winter, Orems Elementary School parents grew alarmed — and began flooding the system with emails and a petition with hundreds of names.

In messages posted on the county school website, parents described the students that would be redirected to their school as "bad" kids, who might disrupt their classrooms and their children's educations. They talked about a loss in property values. If the redistricting were approved, a few said, they would move away.

One mother wrote: "I do not want her surrounded with children whose lifestyle may not have the same values."

What some parents see as self-preservation, others see as an attempt by a white community to keep black and Hispanic children out.

Grandparent Darlene MacIntosh, who represented the predominantly minority Shady Springs Elementary School on the volunteer redistricting committee, took what she called the "nasty comments" personally. The way she saw it, the Orems parents were saying they didn't want her sweet, smart biracial granddaughter.

"They don't want the minority kids over there," she said. "They are kids and they didn't deserve to be beat up by Orems."

For Baltimore County, it's a familiar discussion. Research shows that racial and socioeconomic integration benefits students of all races and backgrounds — but experience reveals the difficulty of achieving it.

Parents in the Catonsville area were hopeful in 2015 that a similar redistricting would allow them to better integrate several schools. But parents at predominantly white schools resisted sending their children elsewhere or accepting students from other neighborhoods, and the plan that was ultimately approved left populations largely unchanged.

Maryland was the third most segregated state in the nation for black students in 2014, according to the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles. Even as its population was growing more diverse, more than one-quarter of its public schools were highly segregated, according to the Maryland Equity Project at the University of Maryland.

In Baltimore County, one in five schools was more than 90 percent minority, a proportion that researchers describe as racially isolated.

Decades of research has shown that minority achievement increases in integrated schools. In segregated schools, students are more likely to find themselves with less experienced teachers and in less rigorous classes.

Researchers believe that white and middle-class parents bring resources and social capital to the schools. By advocating for smaller class sizes and more rigorous academics for their own children, they can help improve conditions for all children.

Families in Aero Acres say they want to maintain their community's integrity. They believe others are unfairly ascribing racist motives to their cause.

"Everyone is trying to keep their school together," Beaudet said. "Because we want to keep the school together, we are racist."

He says their white community has been targeted by others who want to make it diverse.

"It is not a situation where the government should come in and say you are too white we are going to split you up a bit," he said. "It is not our fault that our community is like that."

He asked why Carroll County and Baltimore City are not targeted for insufficient diversity.

Beaudet can't believe that his 6-year-old granddaughter with Downs Syndrome might have to switch schools. She has adjusted well at Orems, he said; sending her to another school could be difficult for her.

In Baltimore County, redistricting decisions are made by a committee of representatives from each school affected. Each school typically is represented by its principal, a teacher and two parents.

Working with a consultant, the committee proposes new boundaries, using criteria including keeping neighborhoods intact, allowing maximum numbers of children to walk to school and promoting diversity. The meetings are shown and archived on the county schools website, and members of the community can post comments by email.

The school board ordered the redistricting process in the eastern county because Victory Villa Elementary is to be replaced by a new, 700-seat school with room enough to absorb some of the overcrowding in surrounding schools.

The problem the committee had to face was this: Most of the overcrowded schools are on the west side of the Middle River area, while most of the schools on the east side have space available.

So the most logical approach, Victory Villa teacher Linda Gaylord said, seemed to be to redraw lines to shift students eastward.

Her school, like Orems, would pick up some students from the west, and send some students to the east.

"Every school in the boundary is changing," she said. "It is not just that one school," she said.

She believes the proposal the committee recommended is the best option for the entire area.

"It doesn't favor anyone, but it addresses the problem."

Committee members and parents say no other school has refused to accept the committee's recommendation.

"My biggest concern is that the process should be fair across the board," said Glenmar Elementary School parent Larry Thompson, who attended many of the committee meetings. "Our entire area is changing, so it is not fair for one community to say 'We don't want any outsiders, and therefore all the other schools have to adjust.'"

Thompson, who is black, said diversity "gives an opportunity to get to know others and to learn about people that are different from them."

Jennifer Hines, an Orems parent, said the Orems proposal would keep the neighborhood together.

"My thinking behind it is that you want to impact the smallest number of students as possible," she said.

The proposal was not reviewed by the committee. Some parents from other schools say the school board should not ignore the recommendation of the committee after months of meetings and discussion.

Russell Brown, the school system's chief accountability officer, said it would leave Shady Spring overcrowded and Orems under capacity.

When the Orems community came to the first school board meeting and handed their plan to the members, Brown said, he decided to create a map that laid it out.

So there are now two plans before the school board.

Outgoing School Superintendent Dallas Dance and the board have emphasized spreading resources — from computers to special programs — evenly across schools. They have not pushed integration.

School board chair Edward Gilliss said the board usually accepts the recommendation of the boundary committee, but he does not know how the vote will go Tuesday night.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

@lizbowie

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