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Status of Cromwell Valley Elementary a 'magnet' for concern

Baltimore County Public Schools designated Cromwell Valley Elementary School a magnet school in 1993. That status is now in question.

A decision on whether the Towson school stays a regional magnet, becomes a neighborhood magnet with definitive boundaries or loses its magnet status altogether won't be known until December, when BCPS's magnet task force makes its recommendations. Until then, Cromwell Valley school parents have taken a proactive stand although they are not unified in their goals for the future of the school.

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Some parents want the pre-K through fifth-grade school to keep its regional magnet status. Others would like it to become a neighborhood magnet. Whatever the designation, all seem to agree that the school should stay a magnet and not become simply a neighborhood school.

Complicating the scenario is the possibility of a change in sibling preference and walker policies.

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"People are fearful of the future," said Baltimore County Fifth District Councilman David Marks, referring to the anger, angst and finger-pointing that have characterized the issue.

Cromwell Valley Elementary is a regional magnet, also known as a zone-free magnet, meaning that Baltimore County students apply for entry through a lottery system. It does not have neighborhood zones, or designated geographical boundaries, as a neighborhood magnet school would.

The unofficial policy of BCPS has been that those who live within the traditional boundary of 1 1/2 miles of the school and would be walking, as well as the younger siblings of students already attending the school, receive preference for admission.

In January, BCPS announced that Cromwell Valley would be transformed from a regional to a neighborhood magnet with the construction of an addition. Last month, however, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz opposed building the addition and, instead, directed the money toward a proposal to build a new Towson elementary school on the site of the county's Bykota Senior Center.

"That changed everything," Marks said. "I think the county executive is correct in supporting a new elementary school, but now we need to figure out the future of Cromwell Valley."

Marks sent a letter to BCPS Superintendent Dallas Dance proposing a compromise. He suggested keeping Cromwell Valley Elementary a regional magnet until 2018, then transitioning to a neighborhood magnet, while gradually enlarging the boundaries for students who would walk to the school. Siblings would continue to get preference through 2017-18 instead of the current 2015-16.

"My plan helps to address overcrowding while the two new elementary schools are being built," said Marks, referring to the new Towson elementary and a future northeastern elementary in the Perry Hall area. "It's a balanced approach to try to address lot of different interests" in the situation.

Whether or not Marks' proposal or, indeed, any of the various parent groups' proposals, will have an impact is questionable. BCPS officials indicated that any decision will be based on the magnet task force's recommendations.

"We will have an action plan to follow based on the recommendations," said Verletta White, chief academic officer of BSPS.

The recommendations will be presented to Dance and the Board of Education but may not necessarily be available for public perusal or discussion beforehand.

"Once the board agrees [on the recommendations], we will then have a plan of action," White said.

The magnet task force was established in 2013 as an offshoot of a study that examined all elementary, middle and high school magnet programs in the county. Many magnets dated to 1993, and whether they still served their purpose was to be determined, according to Bryan Stoll, supervisor of BCPS magnet programs.

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The study stated, for example, that "there are not enough seats in elementary magnets to meet the demand," a finding exacerbated by siblings and walkers. In the 2012-13 school year, none of the elementary magnets had more than one-fourth of its students from outside the neighborhood. Cromwell Valley Elementary had one of the highest scores, with 23 percent, or 88 out of 386 students.

White said the magnet task force is charged with looking at the entire central area, from the quality to location to feeder patterns. With 54 members representing all the communities involved, the task force will determine if a magnet program fits the current magnet profile and whether it should be regional or neighborhood.

"It's too soon to talk about boundary change, whether or not [Cromwell Valley Elementary] stays a magnet," White said. "BCPS is not coming in with an agenda. We are waiting for recommendations from the task force."

Cromwell Valley parents disagree. The sibling option will continue until 2015-16 but may end after that. School boundaries, which have no defined limits, are determined by a boundary committee, and should Cromwell become a neighborhood magnet, the parameters are currently unknown. More immediately, the school has been removed from BCPS' regional magnet application and from the list of magnets on its website.

"Decisions are being made or we wouldn't have been taken off the magnet application and list," said Laurie Trentler, president of the Cromwell Valley PTA, a Hampton Gardens resident whose two children attend the school. "We understand Baltimore County is looking at the big picture, but right now the situation is not good. We feel the school is in limbo and the parents are under tremendous pressure."

Trentler said the PTA prefers the school retain its regional magnet status.

Jennifer Comotto is an organizer of Concerned Parents of CVE. The Cub Hill neighborhood resident would also prefer Cromwell Valley remain a regional magnet until the two future elementary schools are built and then revisit the issue.

"Once Cromwell Valley was dropped from the regional magnet lottery, people couldn't apply," said Comotto, who has one child at the school and potentially a second, depending on the sibling policy. "Dance is closing options, and we haven't had any input."

Tamee Bollinger, president of the Campus Hills Community Association, agreed.

"One of the issues is that Dance is on record as saying he doesn't support the magnet program," said Bollinger, who has a child at Cromwell and another who might attend. "We are upset that we are not part of the decision-making process.

Bollinger said her association wants to keep Cromwell Valley's current status as well as its sibling and walker policies.

"Our main concern is that it will lose its magnet status, and that seems to be the direction we're heading," she said.

Lily Rowe, a Hillendale neighborhood resident with two children at Cromwell Valley, also wants Cromwell Valley to remain a regional magnet. However, if the school becomes a neighborhood magnet, Rowe, a member of the Central Area Education Advisory Council, an appointed position, wants all current students to stay until graduation and their younger siblings be allowed to enroll.

"Our feeling is the date of implementation should be pushed to the 2018-19 school year," Rowe said. "We're saying the same thing as Marks but in a different way."

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