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Outside River Hill High School, people protest a plan to redraw boundaries in Howard County to bolster diversity.
Outside River Hill High School, people protest a plan to redraw boundaries in Howard County to bolster diversity. (Photos courtesy of Scott Ewart)

In Howard County, people pride themselves on making everyone feel welcome. Bumper stickers say “Choose Civility.” The county’s pioneering newtown, Columbia, was founded on the premise that people of different races and economic status should live side by side.

Now, those convictions are being tested by a proposal that seeks to redistribute some 7,400 of the school system’s 58,000 children to different schools — in part to address socioeconomic segregation that leaves children from poor families concentrated in certain schools.

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Signs like “No Forced Busing" and “Don’t Dismantle Communities” are appearing in protests in front of River Hill High School, where nearly everyone is affluent and very few are black or Hispanic. A Facebook page called “Howard County School Redistricting Opposition” has more than 1,900 members.

Many say Superintendent Michael Martirano’s redistricting plan will disrupt their kids’ education and force longer commutes. Some point out that these big changes to their child’s life won’t necessarily result in big changes to a school’s poverty rate.

They say the district is politicizing their children’s education.

No one should be surprised by the level of passion this debate is stirring, said Deepak Baskaran, an Ellicott City parent of three who opposes the plan. Should it pass, his young children would eventually attend a lower-rated high school that’s four miles farther away than the one they’re zoned to now.

“Whenever you’re talking about your kids, it gets emotional,” he said. “You work really hard in life to provide what’s best for your kids.”

The proposal is a rare attempt by a school district in Maryland or the nation to confront the re-segregation of schools that has taken place over the past several decades.

While U.S. Supreme Court rulings have limited the ability of school districts to assign students based on race alone, efforts to promote economic diversity, as Howard County is doing, often result in racial desegregation as well.

By 2014, Maryland was the third most racially segregated state in the nation, with one-quarter of its schools considered highly segregated. In neighboring Baltimore County, communities have pushed back hard at small attempts to consider economic segregation when redrawing boundaries.

At a time of acrimony nationally over race and class, some of Howard County’s political and school leaders have staked their reputations on support of the redistricting plan.

“I believe we value diversity and inclusion, and this is an opportunity to live it," said Howard County Councilwoman Christiana Mercer Rigby, who has pushed for more socioeconomically integrated schools. “We get an opportunity to be the best of what we can be.”

While the county’s politicians have no say in whether the plan passes, they have provided political cover for the school board. In the 2018 election, a new County Council was swept in, some campaigning on themes of diversity and equity. Most members of the council and school board have expressed support for a major redistricting, even if some believe that tweaks to the plan are needed. The school board is expected to discuss the plan at length before a scheduled vote Nov. 21.

County Executive Calvin Ball has not taken a position yet on the specifics of the plan, but has expressed concern about the current concentration of low-income children in a small number of schools. Research suggests that students in schools with a large percentage of low-income children don’t do as well academically. "There needs to be a community conversation about equity,” Ball said.

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

That doesn’t mean it’s easy politically.

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John King Jr., a former U.S. secretary of education under President Barack Obama, said passing such a plan is a challenging task but necessary.

“It is courageous because the politics are complicated," King said. “People get very attached to the home they bought and the school to which they thought their kid would be assigned.”

Two goals

Superintendent Martirano’s plan, released Aug. 20, has two overarching goals. It is designed to address the county’s pressing need to use space more efficiently in its 77 school buildings so that state officials won’t turn down their requests for school construction dollars.

While some schools have too few students, others are crowded, with trailers out back. More than 30 schools need to gain or lose students. The new plan in many cases shifts boundaries westward and would redistribute students so that at least 53 schools would be considered at the right capacity.

Reducing socioeconomic segregation also is a key goal. “I have inherited this system of great disparity of wealth” that is stymieing progress, Martirano said. “This is preventing us from delivering an equitable education for all our children.”

Currently, at 14 of the district’s 62 elementary and middle schools, 50 percent or more of the children qualify for a free or reduced-price meal, which federal education officials use as a designation of poverty. At a third of Howard’s 12 high schools, the percentage of students from poor families is nearly double the countywide average of 22 percent.

Under the new plan, the number of elementary schools where 50 percent of children are counted as poor would be halved, from 12 to six. No elementary school would have more than 55 percent.

The plan also improves the rates for middle and high schools, with no school having more than 46 percent of its students coming from low income families.

Since increasing economic diversity often leads to greater racial integration, those changes could have far-reaching consequences. Decades of research and multiple studies show that integrating schools has been the most effective means of closing the so-called “achievement gap” between black and white students and middle income and poor children. Students in racially integrated schools have higher SAT scores than those in segregated schools.

And low-income students who attended more affluent elementary schools scored on average two years ahead of low-income students who went to high-poverty schools.

University of California at Berkeley professor Rucker C. Johnson tracked black children who attended integrated schools in the 1960s through the 1980s, and found they had higher earnings when they grew up, were healthier and were less likely to be incarcerated than those who remained in segregated schools.

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Students who attend integrated schools are also more likely to carry that experience with them into their adult lives, picking integrated neighborhoods to live in, researchers say.

Parental concerns

Martirano’s plan has drawn a range of criticism and praise from parents. Some who support its broad goals have concerns about how it would affect their children specifically.

Linda Leslie, PTA president of Wilde Lake High School, says she knows some parents don’t want their kids transferred to the school, where nearly half of the students are from low-income families. But she says her children have thrived there, academically and in attending a school that is diverse both racially and economically.

“What our kids say is that they are better prepared to be in a diverse university environment,” said Leslie. “They are able to work in groups better. They are able to work with a range of people.”

Under the redistricting plan, Wilde Lake would gain hundreds of students from the more affluent River Hill High School, which would reduce the percentage of low-income students at Wilde Lake from 46 percent to 38 percent.

In Leslie’s view, the more affluent families would bring new resources and support to the school. “They aren’t working two and three jobs. They have stay-at-home parents,” she said. That means they can volunteer more and provide more cash to fund everything from sports activities to after-school programs.

While River Hill’s booster club raises large amounts of money, she said, Wilde Lake struggles to get enough money for its sports teams.

Raj Tuliani is among those whose children would get moved into Wilde Lake.

Tuliani says he chose his home under the assumption he would get to send his children to River Hill High in Clarksville, which state officials rank in the 99th percentile of all Maryland schools. Wilde Lake instead is in the 51st percentile.

His kids' commute would triple, he wrote in testimony to Howard County officials, leading to less sleep and family time.

His 12-year-old son, Veer, has long anticipated becoming a River Hill Hawk. He already goes to the campus on Tuesday nights for an accelerated math program and feels connected to the school.

“I was just pretty shocked,” Veer said about hearing of the proposal. “Howard County shouldn’t tear up communities like this. Going to River Hill is definitely going to be a high point of my school career.”

Some are disheartened by the divisions in the community the redistricting debate has exposed.

After dropping off two of her children at Thunder Hill Elementary, Destiny Ingram walked home through her tree-lined neighborhood in Columbia.

Fellow Thunder Hill families — black, white, Hispanic, Asian — passed by her on the sidewalk every few moments, and the 37-year-old mother waved and said hello. The diversity and welcoming reputation is part of what drew Ingram and her family there.

But Ingram sees and hears a lot of opposition to the new plan.

"It seems like now people are bucking against it because they want that higher-rated school," Ingram said. "It's a lot of stereotyping I didn't expect from a community that was built on the idea that diversity would help our kids be better people."

Thunder Hill, where Ingram sends her 7- and 10-year-olds, would see its poverty rate go from 21% to 37% under the plan, one of the largest jumps among elementary schools. She’s heard other parents express concerns that their children’s education will suffer because of an influx of children from more challenging circumstances. They’ve expressed worries over the potential for more behavioral problems and crime.

Some of Ingram’s neighbors have started talking about looking at homes in other areas.

While Ingram supports the idea of redistricting and dispersing students based on socioeconomic status, she’s not confident this proposal will make a difference. Even if it passes, she thinks people will move and nothing will truly be resolved

Opponents of the plan are aware of the tensions in the debate and how their stance may be interpreted. Some parents on the opposition Facebook page say they’ve been labelled racists or elitists because of their viewpoint.

The website for the anti-redistricting group "Families for Education Improvement” has recommendations for signs and slogans.

“A reference to a long bus ride is acceptable, any reference to forced busing is not,” it reads. “ 'I love my school’ is acceptable while ‘I don’t want to go to (fill in the blank) school’ is not.”

Too far, or not far enough

One question being asked by both opponents and supporters is whether the movement of such large numbers of students is worth the pain when the percentage of poor children won’t change radically at many schools.

Though the plan is rare in its scale, it’s not “particularly ambitious,” said R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, an associate professor of the sociology of education at New York University.

He said lowering schools’ poverty percentages much more — to 35 percent or 40 percent— would be better than the plan’s incremental goal of 50 percent or less.

“If you are going to catch hell for 50 percent, then at least go to 40 percent,” he said.

King, the former education secretary, said that while the proposal may not be enough, it is a step in the right direction. If the county doesn’t act now, he said, schools will be even more segregated in five or 10 years. “If you don’t take steps to protect the balance, it gets worse over time,” he said.

County Councilman Opel Jones, a supporter of the plan, bristles at the suggestion by some that the school system shouldn’t be taking on such sweeping change.

“When is the right time to talk about this? It is 2019,″ Jones said.

He added, “Any region in the country will hopefully take note of what we are doing here."

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