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Drawing the lines for new school boundaries in Catonsville and Arbutus

Construction is underway on the Westowne Elementary School campus for a new, larger school building that is scheduled to openfor the fall of 2016. The construction project for a new Catonsville Elementary School is also underway as are plans for a new Relay Elementary School.
Construction is underway on the Westowne Elementary School campus for a new, larger school building that is scheduled to openfor the fall of 2016. The construction project for a new Catonsville Elementary School is also underway as are plans for a new Relay Elementary School. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda)

Even as students begin to settle into the new school year, their parents may continue to feel anxiety over the state of education in the southwest area.

The Arbutus and Catonsville areas are in for some significant changes over the next two years. Three new elementary schools will be built in the area, replacing aging and too-small facilities at Catonsville, Westowne and Relay Elementary schools, as well as a 200-seat addition at Westchester Elementary.

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But the biggest change may come before the new schools open their doors. That's drawing the boundary lines for 11 of the southwest area's 13 elementary schools by Baltimore County Public Schools.

Only Baltimore Highlands and Riverview Elementary will not have their boundaries reassessed.

On Sept. 16, the first meeting of the redistricting committee will be held at Catonsville High School, officially kicking off the redistricting process.

At Westowne Elementary School in Catonsville, PTA president China Williams says the redistricting issue has been on many parents' minds.

"It's on people's radar, definitely," the mother of two said. "People are eager, anxious about it."

Construction that has already begun on what will become Westowne's new building has soothed some fears, she said, serving as a reminder to parents that their children won't likely be redistricted out and away from familiar classmates, teachers and staff..

Rather, she said, the opening of a new school with about 200 more seats will mean more students from other neighborhoods coming in.

"People are curious about who's coming in and from where," she said.

Williams said she would like to see more of a consistent spread of students from different economic backgrounds across Catonsville schools.

Of the four schools in the southern portion of Catonsville, south of the Baltimore National Pike, Westowne has the highest percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced meals (FARMS), with 45.8 percent of students qualifying in the 2014-2015 school year, according to data from the school system. At Catonsville Elementary, it was 30.6 percent, at Hillcrest, it was 24.4 percent and at Westchester, that number was 22.9 percent.

The percentages of FARMS students at the three Catonsville schools north of the Baltimore National Pike — Edmondson Heights, Johnnycake and Woodbridge — were all more than 50 percent.

I hope "we achieve a certain amount of socioeconomic balance and fairness," Williams said, noting that there are high-income areas near Westowne where kids are currently assigned to other elementary schools.

The redrawing of school boundaries is part of the county's effort to address overcrowding in southwest area schools. According to figures from the last school year, all but one of the 11 schools involved in this fall's boundary process are overcrowded, some by more than 30 percent.

The boundary change committee, which will work to develop a new boundary map and present that plan to the school board for approval, is made up of representatives from each school getting a new building and from each school that will share a boundary with a newly constructed school.

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Those schools, referred to a "adjacent schools" in county literature, include Arbutus, Edmondson Heights, Halethorpe, Hillcrest, Johnnycake, Lansdowne and Woodbridge Elementary schooll. Representatives include the principal of each school, a teacher from the school, a parent and a community member.

At Woodbridge Elementary School, Principal Lori Phelps said her school is not as severely overcrowded as some other area schools. With that in mind, she said she doesn't anticipate any major shake-ups in the Woodbridge community.

'I don't think that we expect to see any real changes with our boundaries," Phelps said, noting that the school is only about 30 students over its state capacity of 432 students.

As a result, she said, interest in the subject hasn't, at this point, been particularly high among parents and the school community.

Phelps said she had already make her nominations of representatives to the boundary change committee. One parent volunteered, and Phelps said she asked another former Woodbridge parent with an interest in things like planning and road design to join.

"I didn't have to look for volunteers, but I didn't have to pick between volunteers," she said.

Even though she doesn't expect much change to her school, Phelps said she is looking forward to being part of the process. A former Baltimore City teacher who spent seven years as an assistant principal before taking over at Woodbridge, she said she has never been at a school during a redistricting.

"It's going to be a real learning experience for me," she said.

Catonsville Elementary School principal Linda Miller is also looking forward to watching the process unfold.

She said she wasn't inundated with committee volunteers either, but she expects a lot of Catonsville Elementary parents to attend the committee meetings and tune in to the live stream videos of the process.

"I think the concern is out there in the community," she said.

The school community is also excited for the opening of their new school next year, she said. The staff has made enjoying the memories of their current building the theme of this school year, Miller said, adding that next year, with new students, a new building and possibly some added staff as a result of increased enrollment, could feel like a whole new Catonsville Elementary.

"We feel like the new school will really be a blending," she said. It will be "different in a good way."

But change, she noted, is never easy, especially when it comes to schools with histories in the community that date back more than 100 years.

"I think they're truly community schools," she said of the schools in the southwest area. "We have generations of family that have come through out school."

Relay Elementary School PTA president Jen Andrews expects the start of the meetings later this month will pique interest among parents and community members. Even though meetings about the upcoming boundary changes were in the spring, Andrews said the issue has since taken a backseat to issues surrounding school faculty.

Construction on the new Relay Elementary building, which was originally scheduled to open in 2016, has also been pushed back a year, to the 2017-2018 school year.

In the past couple months, the subject of redistricting hasn't come up at all among PTA parents, she said.

A recent letter from the school asked parents to reply if they were interested in sitting on the boundary committee, Andrews said. The hope, she said, is that once the committee gets together on Sept. 16, more information will start coming to parents about the redistricting.

"I think once the meetings start, that will [grab parents' attention]," she said.

Andrews said she plans to start paying more attention once the process starts. The mother of a second-grader at Relay said she chose to live in the area because of the school's reputation for high performance. With her residence near the outskirts of the current school boundary, she said she does have some concerns that her family could be redistricted out of Relay.

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The area's school was also a factor in Westchester Elementary PTA president Erica Russo's decision to move to Catonsville. The mother of a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old, she and her family live close to the school on Old Frederick Road, she said, so she is optimistic that her youngest won't be redistricted out of Westchester. Her husband, Tadd, will represent the school on the boundary change committee.

"We're hopeful that not a lot will change for us," she said. But she said she is also trying to be realistic about the situation.

"I'm hoping that BCPS does take the input of all the interested parties into account," Russo said.

"You can't make everybody happy 100 percent of the time. But if you're listening to people, that's important," she said. "If people feel as if they've been part of the process...people may feel that a reasonable compromise has been reached."

That, said BCPS spokesman Mychael Dickerson, is the goal.

"The superintendent's team, we really try to stay out of this as much as possible," he said. "It really will be the work of the committee."

At the first meeting, committee members will be given information about the schools affected, local demographics and other relevant information, he said.

From there, the committee will work largely on its own, he said, with the hope that committee members will be take a holistic approach to the problem, and not just try to advocate for the interests of their school.

"A lot of times, people come in thinking in tunnel vision of their school, their area," he said. "You have to think for the whole."

Dickerson pointed to the redistricting of the York Road corridor to accommodate the new Mays Chapel Elementary two years ago as an example of success. In that case, the board adopted the plan recommended by the committee.

"Boundary processes around the county, historically, it's difficult for people," he said.

"On the outset, you go, 'Wow, this is hard,'" he said. But "it's not as painful as people think."

According to a release from BCPS, redistricting committee meetings will be held twice a month at Catonsville High School through the fall.

The Sept. 16 meeting will be followed by another meeting on Sept. 30.

Other meetings are scheduled for Oct. 14, Oct. 28, Nov. 11, Nov. 18 and Dec. 9.

The committee is expected to make its recommendation to the Board of Education on Feb. 2. On Feb. 17, there will be a board hearing on the matter. On March 1, the board will decide on the new school boundaries.

All the meetings will be open to for public observation, but only the Nov. 18 meeting and the board hearing will be open for public comment, according to the county schools release.

Even though she hopes her home will stay within the Westchester boundary, PTA president Russo said she's prepared for any changes that may come her family's way.

She also has some advice she's been giving to parents who approach her with concerns about the future.

"The schools are top-notch in Baltimore County," she said, adding that she'd be happy to have her children at any of Catonsville's schools. "We have great schools in Catonsville. We're lucky to be a part of a community like this."

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