Howard County Schools Superintendent Renee Foose has directed the school system staff to "go back to the drawing board" with their plans to redistrict as many as 2,800 students next year.
"I have to be honest with you, I saw the redistricting plan, and I know the history of how we do that here, and it's disruptive," Foose said during her first Listen and Learn open forum Monday night at Wilde Lake High School.
"I have asked staff today, before I came here, to go back to the drawing board, because I'm not comfortable with it."
More than 50 people showed up for the third session of Foose's first Listen and Learn forum, held to present her entry plan and gather input from the public. After a brief introduction from Foose, who took over as superintendent July 1, the discussion was turned over to moderators, who asked questions submitted online and by the audience.
While questions ran the gamut from band uniforms to securing an for a child, building partnerships with parents and combating bullying, many questions centered on redistricting.
The Board of Education is set to vote in November on a plan that would redistrict students to alleviate overcrowding in northeastern region schools, to shift students westward to take advantage of under-capacity schools and to open a new 600-seat elementary school on Ducketts Lane in Elkridge.
Foose said she has directed staff to take the plans back to the committee and advisory groups to "revisit" them.
"To me, (the redistricting plan) has to make sense," said Foose. "You bought your houses where you bought your houses and that includes that school (of attendance), and I want to do everything I can to honor that. But most importantly, I want a redistricting plan that is student-centric, to the best extent possible. There's some things about it that make no sense to me and that I can't accept."
Foose's announcement comes a little more than two weeks before staff makes a final redistricting recommendation to the board, a plan a committee and staff have been working on for more than three months.
When asked to comment on the effect redistricting has on a school's socio-economic make-up, which in turns affects a school's achievement, Foose said it was a "source of stress" for her.
"One of the things I specifically look at is, how does this balance out when we're looking at the impact of poverty on these schools," Foose said, to audible "thank-yous" and approval from the audience. "There are some schools that will have an increased number of students receiving free and reduced meals."
Regarding rumors that some schools would see a drastic increase in such students, Foose said, "that is not true. Under any redistricting plan, that is not true."
Redistricting came up again when questions were asked about diversity — specifically, how Wilde Lake High can maintain its diversity when its feeder schools, like Longfellow Elementary School, face significant changes if redistricted.
"We don't use redistricting as a tool for social engineering," Foose said. "It's used as a tool for overcrowding."
After the forum, schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove described Foose's approach to redistricting as "least disruptive to schools, children and families as possible. ... Staff are looking at alternative plans that would move fewer students and involve fewer schools."
Several Board of Education members were at the forum, including Allen Dyer, Ellen Giles and Brian Meshkin. Afterwards, Meshkin said Foose's interest in a more student-centric redistricting was "music to my ears."
"I think the way we do redistricting is unnecessary and poorly planned," Meshkin said. "Any change that's going to happen is going to take longer than parents and students want, but redistricting every single year is absurd, and there's no way we should be doing that. ... I'd like to fix it rather than have this extremely painful experience. Anything is better, any improvement by even the smallest degree."
In her presentation, Foose ran through some statistics: for every 100 ninth-graders, 69 graduate from high school, 42 go to college, 28 return for their second year of college and 20 graduate from college.
"There's huge gaps, and this is problematic," Foose said. "We have to make sure we're backwardly mapping the trajectory of students (who succeed) and find out where did it go wrong for students who did not do that, and we will build a path to success."
The day after the forum, Foose said it was "wonderful" to see school employees and members of the public attend.
"The questions they asked helped me to better understand their experiences with the school system," she said. "And all of the information gathered through these sessions will help us to develop a strategic plan that truly represents our collective vision for our schools."
Two more Listen and Learn forums are scheduled: Oct. 15, at Hammond High School, and Oct. 29, at River Hill High School. Afternoon sessions are scheduled for teachers and staff from 2:45 to 4 p.m. and 4:30 to 5:45 p.m. both days. An evening session is scheduled for the public on those days from 7 to 8:15 p.m.
Giles encouraged the public to attend. "It's important that we take advantage of opportunities to be informed and have our voices heard as community members," she said. "This is a chance to see the new superintendent up close and personal, and ask questions — to have a direct connection to the superintendent."