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Parents concerned about how Harford schools’ balancing enrollment will affect quality of education, home values

Abingdon resident Corey Newell and his family moved to their current neighborhood from the Bel Air area eight years ago because they found a quiet community in the Overview Manor neighborhood, enough space for three young children and ultimately, the local elementary, middle and high school.

The Newells moved from the C. Milton Wright High School district in Bel Air to the “high-performing” Homestead-Wakefield Elementary and Patterson Mill Middle-High School district. His youngest child is in the second grade at Homestead-Wakefield in Bel Air and the middle and oldest child attend Patterson Mill Middle in Bel Air South. His oldest is slated to attend Patterson Mill High next year.

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That could change in the coming years, though, based on the current options for adjusting attendance area boundaries for Harford County Public Schools’ 33 elementary schools. The school system has started a months-long balancing enrollment process to ease overcrowding at schools in parts of the county that have seen significant residential growth in recent years, as well as put more students in under-populated schools in need of greater resources assigned on a per-pupil basis.

School system officials also want to create more space in buildings as demand grows throughout HCPS for classrooms for students with special needs and for all-day pre-kindergarten services. The boundary line adjustments, which are subject to change as planners gather more data and community input, would take effect for the 2022-23 school year, pending Board of Education approval next February.

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“Given the capacity issues in some of our schools and the impact that overcrowding has on students and programs, this is something that cannot be deferred any longer,” HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson said at the start of an online community forum held Wednesday evening on proposed changes to elementary school boundaries — another forum on middle and high school boundaries is scheduled for June 2.

The forum, which was recorded and is available on the HCPS website, lasted for three hours, and facilitators received close to 1,300 comments and questions through the Microsoft Teams chat feature. People have until 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, April 21 to complete surveys for each of the seven regions of the county that planners have created as they prepare potential boundary line changes. Those surveys are on the school system webpage for balancing enrollment, under the “Community Education Forums” heading.

Newell was among the members of the community who participated in the forum, which he praised overall, but he remains concerned about what changes are proposed for middle and high school boundaries. Those changes are being developed and should be released around the time of the second forum in June, officials said.

“It’s all a big puzzle, but we’re getting small chunks at each one of these meetings,” Newell said of the process.

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The school system has brought planning and data analysis firms FLO Analytics, which has offices in Colorado, Massachusetts and the Pacific Northwest, and Bloom Planning, of Philadelphia, on board to assist officials in balancing enrollment.

“It’s no secret that 2020 was quite a challenging year,” said Ingrid Boucher, founder and principal of Bloom and moderator of Wednesday’s forum. “Whatever ups and downs the year brought, we must recover from the challenges that have been thrown our way while we also plan for the future.”

“We as a community will do this, in part, through our balancing enrollment work,” she added.

Boucher, as well as representatives from FLO and top school system officials, were on hand to answer questions during the forum as the proposed boundary changes for each region were reviewed — people could see maps of potential change areas, where students could be shifted to and from each school, down to which streets and neighborhoods will be affected.

“All of those comments are so great,” Kate Doiron, of FLO Analytics, said of the feedback. “That’s exactly what we are looking for, and so we do want to keep neighborhoods together as much as possible, without having the schools be over capacity.”

Some participants questioned why HCPS is working with out-of-state firms — which school officials said were selected through a competitive bidding process — but Newell said “they are well equipped to do the job,” and is glad to see firms independent of local influences are working on the process.

Homestead-Wakefield is slated to have a replacement facility built in the next few years, and many parents have lobbied HCPS and county government leaders to build a new school to replace the aging and overcrowded facilities.

Newell praised the quality of education his children have received at Homestead-Wakefield, noting the staff, teachers and administrators have “done a great job in accommodating the children, given the limited space that they’ve had.”

“I would say that they’ve gotten a very good education there,” he said.

Homestead-Wakefield could take in some students from the adjacent Emmorton and Ring Factory Elementary Schools south of Bel Air, but some of its students could shift to Ring Factory and William S. James Elementary — students in Newell’s neighborhood could go to William S. James, which is Abingdon.

Newell expressed concern about his child walking to William S. James when there are no sidewalks along Laurel Bush Road, as well as his youngest going to a lower-rated school, based on Maryland State Department of Education Report Card data.

The most recent data available is from the 2018-2019 school year, considering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic at the end of the previous school year and during the current school year, according to the MSDE.

Homestead-Wakefield earned a top five-star mark and 88th percentile ranking for the 2018-19 school year, compared to four stars and a 59th percentile for William S. James the same year, according to each school’s report card.

Harford school system officials have urged community members not to focus on comparing the quality of one school to another, and Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations for HCPS, stressed during the forum that all 54 schools in Harford County are top quality.

Newell said he doesn’t want to see “a battle of the neighborhoods,” but key concerns for him and others he has talked with are their children going to a lower-rated school and how that could affect property values.

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He wants all of his children to remain in the Patterson Mill district, as students see each other at school and during after-school athletics, and can form strong bonds.

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“I think middle school and high school are the most important years, as [children] start to develop their own identity,” Newell said.

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