Howard system looks ahead to middle school redistricting

Construction has already begun on a new Howard County middle school, set to open in Hanover's Oxford Square development in August 2014. The system is already looking to how it will fill that school with students as the middle school redistricting process begins.

A preliminary recommendation will come before the Board of Education June 13 in the form of the annual feasibility study. Last year's feasibility study had projected the need to move more than 2,100 students in a comprehensive plan across much of the county. But the school system's manager of school planning, Joel Gallihue, said Wednesday, May 22 that the number of students moved could be half that, as Superintendent Renee Foose asked staff to focus more directly on opening the school.

"Some things are off the table," Gallihue said. "We want to open the school successfully, and solve as many problems as we can."

Furthermore, said Linda Wise, deputy superintendent of curriculum, instruction and administration, Foose has given central office staff a "clear and specific" charge to improve the redistricting process by including public input from the very beginning.

That was where the about 80 people gather in Long Reach High School's cafeteria May 22 came in. It was the second of two community meetings on the upcoming middle school redistricting, and followed the format of many meetings held since Foose came on as superintendent in July 2012: after an introduction, attendees broke up into focus groups and brainstormed ideas on large sheets of paper. Gallihue said between the two meetings, about 150 people were able to provide input.

"Your input is critical to ensuring our process reflects the collective values and desires of our community, and will help in providing a strategy for us moving forward," Foose said in a video statement at the meeting.

It's the first time the public has been able to provide input before the redistricting process even begins, and parents on hand May 22 said they appreciated the opportunity. Many came out because they were concerned that their children would be unnecessarily moved from one middle school to another — though redistricting outside of the northeastern and southeastern middle schools is unlikely.

"My main concern is that I want my kids go to the schools we bought our house for," said Shannon Murtha, whose children go to West Friendship Elementary, Mount View Middle and Marriotts Ridge High Schools. "There had been a discussion that our youngest daughter would have to go to Glenwood (Middle School) but it seems that was pulled off the table this year. That's part of the reason I came, to see if we would be affected."

Another concern parents had with middle school redistricting is the shift to high school, and in turn the shift back to a student's neighborhood school. Gallihue said there are currently no plans to alter high school attendance areas. That means students redistricted into a new middle school would not feed into the respective high school, but would go back to the one they'd originally been slated for.

"We're concerned about it, moving right in the middle of middle school," said Jeremiah Irvin, of Columbia, whose younger children attend Jeffers Hill Elementary, and are supposed to go to Mayfield Woods Middle School. "It's quite a disruption, and it would bifurcate our neighborhood."

The school system's executive director of facilities, planning and management, Ken Roey, said overcrowded middle schools include Mayfield Woods, Elkridge Landing, Bonnie Branch, Ellicott Mills, Murray Hill and Wilde Lake. The new, 662-seat middle school would accommodate students from the northeastern and southeastern regions of the county.

The attendance area committee, the group that helps develop a final redistricting plan, will hold public meetings throughout the summer. Community meetings will follow in September, with a final staff recommendation, public hearings, work sessions and a vote from the board in November.

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