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After redistricting, Howard parents and students look ahead

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Catherine DiMaggio is finishing her kindergarten classes this week at Veterans Elementary School in Ellicott City. She loves the school — the teachers, the building and especially the mascot, Spirit the Eagle.

But when school resumes in August, Catherine will not be going back to Veterans.

As a result of the elementary redistricting plan approved by the Board of Education last year, about 1,860 Howard County students are going to new schools in the fall in a plan that affects 17 schools.

DiMaggio will attend Hollifield Station Elementary, a little more than four miles from her current school.

Like many families, the DiMaggios are dealing with mixed emotions as they spend the summer preparing for a big change.

"We really liked Veterans," said Catherine's father, Dennis DiMaggio. "Our daughters had the same kindergarten teachers, the same first-grade teachers, and we were looking forward to Catherine having the same teachers. There's a level of anxiety in going to a new school. We've heard good things about Hollifield, but we haven't had that first-hand experience yet."

Redistricting doesn't end with a board vote that makes the changes official. Guidance counselors meet with redistricted students, transition meetings are held for parents and students — including open houses to meet with the new school's teachers and administration — and students take field trips to see their new building.

Catherine went to Hollified Station last week and liked it.

"It's big, and there's an outdoor classroom under a big tree and there's a lot of blacktop for jump-roping," said Catherine, 6. "I'm a little bit sad, and a little bit happy. I'll miss my old school, but I like my new school."

While families are grateful for the transition measures put in place, it still is difficult, said Ted Tuck, of Ellicott City, whose daughter, Rylee, is leaving Veterans to go to St. John's Lane Elementary School.

"When they're in their formative years, it's difficult," he said. "In Howard County, your kids are getting a better-than-average education. But for me, the social education aspect is very important. If you don't understand how to develop friendships, and the need for meeting and helping people, if you don't have that sense of community, you're missing something in a school. Those social skills help you out in later years, and if you don't develop those skills in school you're missing out on a lot."

Those skills, Tuck said, are developed through consistency. Both he and his wife said they would prefer their children to stay with the same group of peers from kindergarten through high school graduation.

"With consistency, you know who you're dealing with and you know how to build trust between people," he said. "Knowing a core group of people helps you understand that. I don't think Rylee's going to get that."

Rylee, 10, is a rising fifth-grader. Her parents said she's "a quieter kid," unlike her older brother, Logan, 14, a rising freshman at Mt. Hebron High School. When he was redistricted as a rising third-grader from St. John's to Veterans in 2006 he made more friends quickly, his parents said.

"I worry," said Rylee's mother, Debbie Tuck. "We hope she can just get in there and meet new kids."

Unlike Catherine, who is moving to Hollifield Station with many of her friends, Rylee has no friends going with her to St. John's.

"All of my friends are at Veterans," Rylee said. "I'll make new friends, but I'm nervous because I don't know anybody."

The nervousness doesn't come so much from the school, Debbie Tuck said. She's "fine" with Rylee going to St. John's.

"That's where our family started anyway," she said. "But it would be nice if when they started kindergarten, they stayed with those kids. You figure, this is a community and you should stay with the school community. But that's not how it is. We weren't aware that all this stuff would happen."

The Tucks bought their Ellicott City town house 16 years ago. Their development does not have a neighborhood school, and Ted Tuck feels that somehow the neighborhood got lost in the shuffle in the county's "chess game."

"Maybe because we don't have a school we naturally feed into and we're a neighborhood that automatically has to go to school somewhere else, it feels like we could be put anywhere," he said.

'Can't hide anxiety from kids'

Because they already had been redistricted, the Tucks said they weren't surprised when the board vote came in November. So certain that they would be redistricted again, Debbie and Ted Tuck told Rylee before the vote was even final.

Joanne DiMaggio said she and her husband weren't surprised by the vote, either, for the same reason as the Tucks: their neighborhood near Patapsco State Park and the Baltimore County line is so far from any school, they, too, could easily be moved.

"We're so close to the end of the county," Dennis DiMaggio said. "We're the last bus stop in Howard County. We were sure that if a redistricting happened, we would fall into it. Besides, there's always rumors, and Veterans was immediately overcrowded after it opened."

An integral part of the elementary school redistricting plan was the opening of Ducketts Lane in Elkridge. Currently, the school system is preparing for a third straight year of redistricting, this time at the middle school level.

Like last year's plan, the upcoming redistricting process — which begins Thursday, June 13, with the presentation of the annual feasibility study — will focus on opening a new school, this one in Hanover. School officials have said it's unlikely the redistricting will affect people outside that region of the county.

Still, going "piece by piece" when it comes to redistricting can't be sustainable in the long run, Dennis DiMaggio said. Perhaps, he and Joanne said, a comprehensive redistricting including the entire county would be more beneficial.

"When it's all about what group yells the loudest, you have to imagine that slows down the process a little bit," he said. "No one wants to do it all at once."

While changing schools is tough, Dennis DiMaggio said, the kids are resilient. Other schools in the area have reputations equally as good as Veterans, he said, and while parents may have an initial discomfort phase, all it takes for his daughter is to find one new friend and "she'll be good by lunch" on the first day of school.

"Parents making a fuss are setting up their kids to have more anxiety, because you can't hide anxiety from kids," he said. "If families and parents are in turmoil, the kids are going to have a harder time adjusting. This is life and life is about change. These kids are going to make new friends and it's going to be great."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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