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Johnnycake community raises equality concerns at public hearing on school redistricting

Nicholas Stewart, the board member representing the Catonsville and Arbutus area, listens to Westowne PTA President China Williams speak on Feb. 17 at a public hearing on school redistricting in southwest Baltimore County. To his right are Board of Education chair Charles McDaniels Jr. and Superintendent Dallas Dance.
Nicholas Stewart, the board member representing the Catonsville and Arbutus area, listens to Westowne PTA President China Williams speak on Feb. 17 at a public hearing on school redistricting in southwest Baltimore County. To his right are Board of Education chair Charles McDaniels Jr. and Superintendent Dallas Dance. (Rachael Pacella / Catonsville Times)

After about 70 minutes of testimony from 26 speakers, the last person to take the stage at a public hearing Wednesday on proposed changes to elementary school boundaries in the Catonsville and Arbutus areas got a large round of applause from the audience.

Cara Detwiler introduced herself as a teacher at "The Johnnycake Elementary School," with emphasis on "the."

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Since August, Johnnycake and 10 other schools in southwest Baltimore County have been going through the process of redistricting to address overcrowding.

During the public hearing Feb. 17 at Catonsville High School, some parents and community members asked why Johnnycake was untouched by the redistricting process. Detwiler cleared it up.

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"Our communities worked hard to make sure that Johnnycake's boundaries were not affected," said Detwiler, who teaches fifth grade.

Each of the options presented either didn't provide enough relief, according to Detwiler, or they sent Johnnycake students to schools outside their community. In those scenarios, teachers and community members felt children were being used to boost diversity figures at other schools, Detwiler said.

Some students would have been separated from their community only to return to Southwest Academy for middle school, an already difficult time in the social lives of adolescents, Detwiler said.

Minorities are the majority at Johnnycake — 66 percent of the student population is black, 15 percent is Hispanic, 10 percent is Asian and 7 percent is white, according to the county school system. At schools on the south side of U.S. 40, white students are the largest population.

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"Johnnycake is a segregated school," Detwiler said. "We had an opportunity through this redistricting process to address that and create more equitable conditions."

But that's not what happened, Detwiler said.

"I'm in support of the proposed map, because it leaves us where we are and we can use that as a starting point for creating awareness," Detwiler said.

Other parents, even parents with students at other schools, asked when Johnnycake might get some relief, a renovation or a new building.

Applause for Detwiler was the second-loudest of the evening. The loudest applause was for Beverly Coleman.

"I don't have a prepared statement — I'm just going to speak from my heart," she said.

Coleman sits on the Southwest Area Advisory Council for the county school system. She got involved with the school system 16 years ago, mainly because of concerns over equity, she said.

During the process there was an attitude that some parents didn't want children to be moved into their schools. She gave Johnnycake as an example, saying some parents felt their children wouldn't be welcome at other schools.

"Children," she said, emphasizing the word. "It just offended and disturbed my heart and my spirit."

When all children are educated, the entire community benefits, Coleman said.

"There are people in some communities, like the Johnnycake Elementary community, who would rather stay at an overcrowded school than to have their children go where they thought their children were not wanted," Coleman said. "I had to say that; if I don't, I'm not speaking for the Southwest area. There are a lot of challenges with this process, but I believe that was the most disturbing."

After seven redistricting meetings since last fall, a committee of teachers, parents and community members chose option 3.2b, which was presented to the Board of Education for approval Feb. 2. The board is expected to vote on the proposed changes March 1.

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