The brightly colored T-shirts, marking members of certain communities apart from one another in reds, blues and yellows, were for the first time in recent memory absent from a Howard County community redistricting meeting, historically the ramping-up point of the sometimes-contentious process.
Instead, more than 80 people gathered in Howard High School's cafeteria in Ellicott City Tuesday night, Sept. 10, to discuss in small groups two possible plans for middle school redistricting that could move more than 1,000 students in order to alleviate overcrowding along the Route 1 corridor and open up a new middle school in Hanover.
"Instead of a situation where you go and sometimes are unhappily forced to sit and wait for your turn at a microphone, which is not a good experience, you're able to talk to someone, talk to each other," said the Howard County Public School System's Manager of School Planning Joel Gallihue of the small groups. "You're getting something out of the process."
Numerous parents at the meeting [a second meeting was scheduled for Wednesday at Centennial High School] noted the more relaxed and collaborative atmosphere the focus groups provided. It was the first time the focus groups — used frequently in community meetings since Renee Foose became superintendent last year — were used in the redistricting meetings.
"We've all be through redistricting meetings before, and this was a much more civilized process," said Susan Gorel, a Patuxent Valley Middle School parent. "This was a much better process."
Throughout the nearly two-hour long meeting, parents and residents discussed concerns with the upcoming redistricting: issues over feeder patterns, transportation times and keeping neighborhoods together, to name a few. Despite the relaxed atmosphere, many still harbored anxiety over the upcoming redistricting.
"(Our neighborhood) isn't in the plan at all, but we know from past experiences that things can change on a dime," said Cathy Gabriel, whose children attend Ilchester Elementary School and Bonnie Branch Middle School. Her students have never been redistricted, but every year, she said, her neighborhood is considered for redistricting. "We want to be involved in this process just in case something changes," she said. "It means you always have to be paying attention."
"It's going to break up friendships," said John Hung, of Ellicott City, whose son attends Ellicott Mills Middle School and could move to Bonnie Branch Middle School. "It doesn't make sense socially or academically to do this. I feel conflicted, too, between me as a parent and me as a citizen. Usually I'm looking for what's best for my neighborhood, my town, my county, my state, whatever serves the greater good is what I vote for. But in this case, there's only one person I care about, and that's my son."
Under the preliminary plan put forth by the school system in June with the presentation of the annual feasibility study, 1,181 students and eight middle schools could be affected by redistricting. In a plan put forth by the Attendance Area Committee, 1,256 students and 13 schools could be impacted, as committee members — who created the plan over six meetings this summer — sought to ease overcrowding at Wilde Lake Middle School by sending students to Clarksville Middle School, and by using capacity at Lake Elkhorn Middle School to help relieve crowding at Patuxent Valley Middle School.
Still, Gallihue urged attendees to remember that "these plans are not the final decision.
"The ultimate decision is made by the board," he said. "We have a school under construction so we have to look at some kind of plan to get it open."
A final redistricting recommendation from school system staff will be presented to the board on either Oct. 22 or Oct. 24; public hearings and work sessions will follow until a final vote Nov. 21. The plan would take effect in August 2014, with the opening of the new middle school currently being built in the Oxford Square development in Hanover.