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Alice Chen 12, center, who can see River Hill High from her backyard, might be redistricted out of the high school. She made the signs she and mother Fen Han are holding in protest. Anti-redistricting plan parents and students demonstrate at Howard County School Board headquarters.
Alice Chen 12, center, who can see River Hill High from her backyard, might be redistricted out of the high school. She made the signs she and mother Fen Han are holding in protest. Anti-redistricting plan parents and students demonstrate at Howard County School Board headquarters. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

In a controversial redistricting fight being watched by school leaders across the nation, the Howard County school board now appears poised to approve a plan Thursday for redrawing boundary lines that makes only modest gains in balancing the levels of poverty across its schools.

In August, Superintendent Michael Martirano proposed redistributing some 7,400 of the school system’s 58,000 students to different schools, in part to address capacity issues but also to ensure that its schools don’t continue to become more economically segregated — with poor students concentrated in the same schools.

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After parents and students took to the streets in protest, writing thousands of pages of comments and packing school board meetings, the board decided to develop its own plan, moving whole neighborhoods from one school to the next in an effort to reduce the pain of the moves for students.

“We have made some modest gains in terms of the capacity and the socioeconomic issues we were hoping to address in the redistricting,” school board chair Mavis Ellis said.

If there had been support on the board, Ellis said, she would have preferred Martirano’s more aggressive plan, “which would have moved more students and had a more leveled out [poverty] rate throughout the whole school system.”

But each time the school board moved neighborhoods, she said, “our parents are crying out about how it is unfair and it isn’t equitable.”

Some of the loudest complaints came from parents and students at River Hill High School in Clarksville, which has one of the wealthiest populations in the county. Less than 5 percent of its student body qualifies for a free or reduced-price school meal.

Martirano’s plan called for hundreds of students from the school to go to Wilde Lake High School, which is 46% low-income. Hundreds more would have been moved out of Wilde Lake in Columbia to reduce its low-income percentage to 35%.

The protests of the River Hill parents succeeded, and the current plan calls for their school to remain untouched. Wilde Lake’s low-income enrollment will drop slightly.

Howard County schools are diverse — a majority of the students are black, Latino or Asian American — and relatively few children are poor. Only 22% of county students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, which makes it more feasible to disperse children from low-income families.

School districts routinely redraw boundaries to address schools that are either overcrowded or underused. Howard County’s plan might help balance the crowding problems that have come from the district adding about 1,000 new students a year.

But few school systems around the country — particularly large ones like Howard — attempt to move thousands of students to achieve a better balance across socioeconomic groups. Research has shown that one of the most effective ways to increase student achievement is to balance the levels of poverty in schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made it difficult for schools to assign students based on race. So the Howard County initiative was being watched to see whether a relatively liberal area would support changes based on socioeconomics.

In a 10-hour meeting which lasted until 11 p.m. Monday, the board dived into the minutiae of each proposed neighborhood change and took votes on more than a dozen changes, the data for each one checked by a consultant who was redrawing attendance boundary lines around each school in real time.

Those new attendance lines, while still subject to a vote Thursday, move only about 5,300 students — 2,000 fewer than the superintendent’s plan.

The percentages of low-income students were reduced at about a dozen elementary schools, nine middle schools and three high schools. And the poverty rate was increased at about five elementary schools where students are wealthier. But the changes are incremental and might barely be noticed at the schools.

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For instance, Stevens Forest Elementary in Columbia — one of the most socioeconomically segregated schools in the county — would decline from 68% low-income to 62%. Under the superintendent’s plan, the percentage would have dropped to 57%. Ducketts Lane Elementary in Elkridge, where 55% of the school’s students are low income, would become 51% low income after the redistricting.

County Councilman Opel Jones said he would have liked a more aggressive plan, but the proposal “is a step in the right direction. ... I think it is still more positive than doing nothing.”

Howard County markets itself on the principle of racial and socioeconomic integration, but over the years the county has become more segregated with wealthier development moving away from Columbia. County Council member Liz Walsh believes it is up to county leaders to try to focus more closely on development.

“Land-use decisions, policies and law can help avoid some of the after-the-fact remedy,” Walsh said. “We shouldn’t be using redistricting to fix bad land-use decisions over the years.”

She represents Elkridge, where she said there is no high school. Students in her district attend six different high schools.

"It doesn’t make any sense,” said Walsh, adding that her focus on the council will be “to forward legislation that has better control over development.”

Both Jones and Ellis said the rancorous debate, which some felt prompted racist responses, has opened wounds but also identified inequities in the resources available for students around the county. Ellis said that even in Howard County, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, there are schools that need more resources.

In the upcoming debate over the school budget, Ellis said she intends to look at ways to help low-income students get access to programs that will help them succeed.

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