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Bel Air and Havre de Grace-area parents and students protest Harford schools’ early redistricting plans

During Harford County Public School’s last elementary school redistricting a decade ago, Tina Bell’s son Cory was transferred from Emmorton Elementary School south of Bel Air to the nearby Ring Factory Elementary School.

Cory later attended Patterson Mill Middle and High School, while most of his classmates went to Bel Air Middle School and High School. That meant he hardly knew any other students when he started middle school.

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“He said that was the worst time of his life,” Bell said of her son, now 22 years old.

Bell is trying to protect her daughter, Kayley, a fourth-grader at Ring Factory, from going through the same experience as HCPS officials gather public input on their current plans to balance elementary, middle and high school enrollment throughout the county. The final version of the plan, pending Board of Education approval, would be in effect for the 2022-23 school year.

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Kayley and Tina Bell were among the dozens parents and students who gathered in front of the A.A. Roberty Building, the school system headquarters in downtown Bel Air, for a protest Monday evening prior to the scheduled Board of Education meeting. Most of the families there have children in Ring Factory and Havre de Grace elementary schools, and they protested early maps that show their kids being shifted to schools outside of their neighborhoods.

The map, which is available on the HCPS’ balancing enrollment webpage, divides the county into seven regions based around local elementary schools, including North, East, Southeast, Center East, Center West, Center South and South. Proposed boundary adjustments for middle and high schools are being developed and will be the subject of a community education forum in early June — a forum for proposed elementary adjustments happened April 14.

Each region has been sub-divided on the map, with numbered sections indicating portions of neighborhoods where children would shift from one school to another. Kayley Bell, whose family lives in the Singer Woods community north of Singer Road between Route 24 and Route 924, is part of the Center South-4 section where Ring Factory students would transfer to Abingdon Elementary School and then be part of the feeder area for Edgewood Middle and High School.

“It’s a great school, and the teachers are really nice,” she said of Ring Factory.

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Kaley’s mother lamented that her daughter would not know any of her classmates when she starts middle school if transferred from her current elementary school, a concern Kaley echoed.

“It would be really sad, because I would have no friends and I wouldn’t know anyone,” she said.

The last major elementary school redistricting happened in 2011 and took effect for the 2011-12 school year, affecting about 1,900 students, or 11% of the HCPS elementary student population at the time. Red Pump Elementary School, built north of Bel Air to help ease elementary overcrowding in that area, also opened during the 2011-12 school year.

Tina Bell noted that her neighborhood has been through five school redistricting processes in the past 30 years. The current balancing enrollment process is driven by a projected increase in overall student enrollment through 2026 and greater demand for space for special education and pre-kindergarten programs, as well as relieving overcrowding in certain schools — Bel Air, Havre de Grace, Homestead-Wakefield and Rep Pump elementary schools, as well as Bel Air Middle School, are above their capacity and new residential development is prohibited in the communities around those schools.

Rebalancing of enrollment also is happening alongside long-term capital planning for the school system, such as plans to build a replacement for the aging Homestead-Wakefield and finding a new location for a replacement the John Archer School, which serves students with special needs and is in Bel Air near Harford Community College and Harford Technical High School.

“Knowing where we’re going to place [John Archer] is going to have impact on this broader conversation, as well as upcoming work with other schools down the line in the capital plan,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said during the HCPS Board of Educationmeeting.

Bulson’s remarks, during which he noted “there is never a good time” to redistrict schools, came after he and the board heard close to two hours of public comments from more than 60 speakers, the majority of whom talked about balancing enrollment.

Many speakers were parents and students who attend Havre de Grace and Ring Factory elementary schools and implored officials to keep the children in their current schools. Others represented the Monmouth Meadows community west of Route 24 — where some children could be transferred from Emmorton to Abingdon Elementary — as well as the Fallston and Kingsville area, where some students could transfer from Youth’s Benefit Elementary in Fallston to Joppatowne Elementary.

School board Vice President Rachel Gauthier urged people, before the public comments, to not “denigrate anybody else’s situation” or school. She stressed that officials “do not, under any circumstances, want to have neighborhood pitted against neighborhood” or one area pitted against another.

“At the end of the day, we are looking for what is best for our kids and what is best for this county in terms of growth, because we are continuing to grow and we are continuing to build,” Gauthier said.

Havre de Grace parents stressed that they do not want their children to attend school outside of the city limits, and that the quality of schools in the community was a key reason why they purchased houses there.

Havre de Grace has two elementary schools, Havre de Grace and Meadowvale, and some students from both schools are slated to transfer to the under-capacity Roye-Williams Elementary School, off of Route 40 in the Oakington area between Aberdeen and Havre de Grace. Parents urged HCPS officials to keep their children in city schools, especially since a replacement building for the aging Havre de Grace Middle and High School opened this year.

Elementary parents want their children to be able to go to the new, $80 million combined middle and high school, and expressed concern that transferring to Roye-Williams could mean they are fed into middle and high schools in Aberdeen.

Havre de Grace resident Nicole Markland, who lives in the Scenic Manor community, has three children, including a 7-year-old in first grade at Havre de Grace Elementary and a 13-year-old who attended Meadowvale Elementary and is now in the seventh grade at Havre de Grace Middle. Her youngest child is 3 years old.

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She started a petition on Change.org, urging HCPS officials to allow families in Bulle Rock and Scenic Manor to remain in the Havre de Grace Elementary attendance area — it had 792 signatures as of Monday evening, according to Markland.

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Markland took part in the protest and also spoke to the school board, noting that her middle child has developed close relationships with teachers and staff at her current school, and her oldest developed mental health issues while having to stay home and learn virtually through much of the school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What would it do to her, to change her environment from the same friends that she was unable to be with for over a year?” Markland asked. “As a county recognizing mental health, where is that same awareness for our children?”

School system officials stressed that the balancing enrollment process is still in the early stages and proposed boundary adjustments are subject to change. There will be more opportunities for public input when planners submit their recommendation to Bulson, and again when the superintendent makes his recommendation to the school board, which is slated to vote on the final plan next February.

“I know it’s a long time, spreading out the anxiety and the frustration, and for that I’m sorry,” said Bulson, who emphasized that officials do not want to “build this plan in a silo” and that public feedback will be crucial throughout the next year.

He also thanked the speakers for their participation, their “civility” and “the critical thinking and the rational thought that went into everything” expressed Monday.

“It speaks well of this community, and we will do the best we can to bring back a plan to you that makes sense, but of course, as you can see there are so many considerations,” Bulson said.

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