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Concern grows for future of Lutherville lab magnet school

Lutherville Laboratory Elementary School, an award-winning magnet school, is not accepting applications for its 2015-16 school year; leaving some parents worried that the magnet program for science, math and communications could be discontinued.
Lutherville Laboratory Elementary School, an award-winning magnet school, is not accepting applications for its 2015-16 school year; leaving some parents worried that the magnet program for science, math and communications could be discontinued. (Staff photo by Elizabeth Eck)

Lutherville Laboratory Elementary School, an award-winning magnet school, is not accepting applications for its 2015-16 school year — leaving some parents worried that the magnet program for science, math and communications could be discontinued.

"Applications are not being accepted for the 2015-2016 school year," the Baltimore County Public Schools website states on its Elementary School Programs pages.

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The suspending of applications to the school won't affect too many children, but PTA President Jamie Papas and parents continue to worry about the future of the magnet program.

"In the last eight to 10 years, the school has only taken about eight [students] from outside the boundary," said Bryan Stoll, supervisor of the county's magnet school program. Papas, however, was alarmed when the school was earlier left off a map and listing of county magnet schools on the BCPS website. She said it would be "illogical" to discontinue a program just after the school and one of its teachers were honored by the Magnet Schools of America, a national program.

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"To me, they are trying to break down something that's working," Papas said.

Baltimore County Public Schools officials deny the program is being halted. Stoll said the school can't accept "special transfers" — children from outside the school's boundaries — because of a recent change in attendance boundaries. He said the boundary change took effect in the spring, after applications for the 2014-15 school year were in the works.

Stoll said BCPS policy doesn't allow new "special transfer" students, including those attending magnet schools, for at least a year after a boundary changes. That gives school officials time to assess the effects of the boundary change, he said.

"That may take one year. It may take two," Stoll said.

Whether students outside school boundaries will be allowed to apply for the 2016-17 academic year will be determined after the assessment.

"There will be a decision as to whether we will begin taking applications," Stoll said.

That doesn't mean the magnet program is being discontinued, according to Leeann Schubert, director of educational options for county schools.

"The program continues for students at the school," she said.

Losing the magnet program would mean losing the staff and specialty teachers, Papas said.

"We wouldn't have what makes Lutherville so great," she said.

The school is well-regarded in the community, Papas said, and houses and apartments in the Lutherville school district are in demand by parents who want to send their children there.She noted that the school is overcrowded, although no classrooms are housed in portables.

Enrollment stood at 554 students in 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available, more than 36 percent above the state rated capacity of 407, according to Diana Spencer, spokeswoman for Baltimore County Public Schools. This year's figures are expected soon.

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Lutherville, along with Cromwell Valley Elementary School, were the only two Maryland schools named to the 2014 Schools of Excellence list by the Magnet Schools of America, a national program. The school's magnet coordinator and STEM teacher, Deidre Austin, was named Region II's Teacher of the Year for 2014. Both are listed on the MSA website.

Papas said parents are gearing up to support the school's magnet program, in which the entire student body participates.

"We're fighting it right now," she said. They enlisted the help of Baltimore County state Sens. Bobby Zirkin and James Brochin, who have written to Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance. Neither senator could be reached for comment.

Lutherville has been returned to the website's magnet map and list of magnet schools.

"They're starting to backtrack," Papas said.

Overenrollment, as well as the opening of the new Mays Chapel Elementary School prompted BCPS's reassessment of area schools' attendance boundaries, according to Stoll and a community questions and responses document dated Oct. 21 on the BCPS website."The purpose of the redistricting committee was to form a boundary for Mays Chapel Elementary while reducing overcrowding in neighboring schools," the document states.

"The program is continuing," Stoll said. "The magnet program is not going away."

Students already enrolled at Lutherville but who live outside the boundaries will be able to finish the program, Stoll said.

In the meantime, BCPS is studying the magnet programs countywide, according to Stoll. A 63-person Magnet Task Force, composed of parents, teachers, administrators, business and university officials, began meeting nearly a year ago. The panel is charged with studying the need for the county's many magnet programs.

"Some have been around 20 years," Stoll said. "Hardly anything has gone away."

Stoll said in early 2015, forums will be scheduled to hear from communities about the various magnets before the task force makes its recommendations to Dance and the Board of Education.

"The task force is making no decisions," Stoll said.

The future of the magnet programs — and their funding — will be determined at a later date, he said.

Lutherville is one of six elementary schools countywide offering a magnet program. Lutherville's science, math and mass communications magnet was developed about 20 years ago, according to Stoll.

Baltimore County Public Schools are currently in the process of accepting magnet school applications for the next school year; applications are due Nov. 25.

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