Some Howard health professionals say school redistricting proposal doesn’t address equity

When Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano released his redistricting proposal in August, one of his “three guiding tenets” was combating student poverty and the county achievement gap.

“This is a true example of equity in action, looking at our capacity and our poverty rate so children all across the school system can receive an equitable education,” Martirano said in an August interview.


However, a group of local health professionals says otherwise.

In Martirano’s recommendation to move nearly 7,400 students for the 2020-21 academic year, his equity aspect zeroes in on students who participate in the school system’s free and reduced-price meals program, FARMs. Students at schools with high FARMs rates would be moved to lower ones, bringing all schools closer to the county average of 22.5%.


Forty-one of Howard’s 74 comprehensive schools would move closer to the county FARMs average, according to the proposal.

However, the “degree to which the FARMs rates is changing with the superintendent’s plan is minimal,” said Dr. Hemant Sharma, an Ellicott City resident and a pediatric asthma and allergy specialist and health disparities researcher.

Sharma said the proposal is “focusing on a very superficial thing which is trying to change numbers [FARMs rates] but not really getting to the root causes of the achievement gap which start early on.”

According to the National Education Association, “achievement gaps are broadly defined as the differences in academic performance between groups of students of different backgrounds and have been documented with respect to students’ ethnic, racial, gender, English language learner, disability and income status.”


One measurement used to gauge Howard’s achievement gap among the nearly 57,400 students is high school graduation rates. While the school system’s overall graduation rate remains over 90% annually, there are disparities among students, including black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, FARMs, special education and English as a Second Language students.

Dr. Alpa Vashist, a pediatric neurologist who lives in Clarksville, said moving kids around is “not going to actually fix the problem” of tackling educational equity.

“[The school system] just wants to make the number [FARMs rate] right on paper,” she said.

Growth of income achievement gap

According to a 2014 report by the Maryland Equity Project at the University of Maryland, “low-income students are most segregated from non-poor students in Harford, Montgomery, and Howard school districts.”

In 2013, 51% of public school students nationwide were from low-income families, rising 19% in less than 25 years, according to the NEA; in 1989 the gap was 32%.

Additionally, in 2013, half of public school students in 21 states were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, according to the NEA.

Two years earlier, a Stanford University professor and researcher concluded the income achievement gap had surpassed the race and ethnicity achievement gap.

In his July 2011 study entitled “The Widening Academic Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations,” Sean Reardon said that since the 1970s, the achievement gap between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40%, nearly doubling the achievement gap between black and white students.

“The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 [percent] to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier,” Reardon wrote.

However, there is very little research in the trends of socioeconomic achievement gaps due to researchers looking at the “relationship between socioeconomic status and children’s academic achievement as a sociological necessity, rather than as the product of a set of social conditions, policy choices, and educational practices,” Reardon said.

“We do not know, for example, if socioeconomic gaps are larger or smaller now than they were fifty years ago, or even twenty-five years ago,” he wrote.

Unintended consequences

Unintended consequences that could arise due to the redistricting proposal include lack of sleep, loss of school connectedness and medical emergencies, according to the health professionals.

As an allergy specialist, Sharma said parents whose child has a food allergy are “always terrified” of an allergic reaction on the school bus due to lack of supervision in terms of children eating on the bus.

With students being proposed to be moved to different schools, it either increases their bus commute time or puts them on a bus for the first time.

“By increasing a bus ride from 5 to 40 minutes, you’re increasing the risk of some adverse health event that is going to happen on the bus for medically fragile kids,” Sharma said.

Dr. Naseem Dawood, a general pediatrician who lives in Clarksville, said when she asks her patients how many hours they sleep each night, the average answer is between six and seven hours.

By changing bus routes and forcing students to wake up earlier, that answer is going to change to between five-and-a-half and six-and-a-half hours, Dawood said.

Vashist said children will not go to bed earlier even though their bus time is changing because “an adolescent brain already has a delayed sleep syndrome,” resulting in children not falling asleep between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. each night.

A lack of sleep can lead to depression, anxiety and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Vashist said.

Sheridan Phillips, a child psychologist and a former faculty member in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, raised a different concern with busing students.

“My major concern with all the children being bused is the psychosocial impact specifically with school connectedness,” said Phillips, a Clarksville resident.

A student bonds to their school by going to the school in their own community. By doing so, “kids are going to feel more secure,” Phillips said.

Clarksville resident Dr. Shobhit Negi, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, said that when students leave their schools, they are leaving behind relationships they have forged with their teachers.

“Kids don’t only go to school for academics, but also for social and emotional learning,” he said. “The teacher and student relationship is mutually beneficial … [and for] a lot of these kids, the teachers are their go-to person.”

Next steps

“As a first step, [the school board] should completely disregard Dr. Martirano’s plan. That should not even be a starting point,” Sharma said.

Martirano’s recommendation also calls for combating overcrowding in schools and establishing a road map for students who eventually will attend the county’s 13th high school in Jessup.


“Where they should start is looking at what are the critical changes that need to be made from the redistricting standpoint, to address school overcrowding because that is our immediate need. We cannot have children going to overcrowded schools,” Sharma said.


From there, a task force comprised of the school board, the County Council, other community leaders and national experts should be formed to “take a thoughtful approach” when addressing the achievement gap, Sharma said.

A week before Martirano presented his proposal, three council members called on the school system to desegregate its schools by addressing student capacity and balancing the FARMs rates.

“We are concerned that it [redistricting] will impact our most disadvantaged students the greatest,” Sharma said. “It’s ironic, right? This is being done with the notion of equity, that we are going to enhance educational opportunities for all of our children … and the children who may be harmed the most are who we are trying to help here.”