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Testifying at second Howard schools redistricting hearing, residents urge that neighborhoods be kept together

People for and against the redistricting plan for Howard County schools demonstrate before the second hearing.

A current Atholton High School student said at a public hearing Tuesday night that the Howard County schools redistricting proposal “moves an absolutely ridiculous amount of students” from his school.

Chris Bardini, a sophomore at Atholton, testified before the school board, urging the seven members to not redistrict at the high school level until the boundary lines have been drawn for the future 13th high school in Jessup.

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In August, Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano presented a proposal to move nearly 7,400 students in a comprehensive redistricting process to combat school overcrowding, address inequities in the distribution of students affected by poverty and establish a road map for high school 13.

In the proposal, 610 Atholton students are being recommended to move into two schools next September — 513 to River Hill High and 97 to Wilde Lake.

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Atholton had 1,504 students enrolled Sept. 30, 2018. If all 610 students leave Atholton, that would represent 40.5% of the student body, when using last September’s enrollment. Annually, the school system collects official enrollment data Sept. 30 for all 77 schools.

Of all the recommendations at the high school level, Atholton faces the highest number of students leaving to attend a different school.

While Sophia Leshchyshyn, a junior at Atholton, is not being proposed to be redistricted, she is concerned about how the move will affect extracurricular programs.

“We will be a completely different school and we will need to rebuild all of our extracurricular programs from the ground up,” Leshchyshyn said.

She is worried that new students being proposed to come to Atholton will not join programs because of the distance from their homes, saying their parents might not be able to pick them up.

Extracurricular programs “enrich us, teach us and open doors to new experiences,” she said.

If the school board proceeds with the plan as is, Leshchyshyn asked for it to look into busing options for all students attending new schools so they can attend programs.

Atholton High is proposed to receive 471 students — 256 from Oakland Mills High and 215 from Hammond.

Tuesday night’s redistricting hearing was for families whose children attend the Columbia-area high schools of Atholton, Hammond, Long Reach or Wilde Lake, as well as any of their feeder schools.

Over four-plus hours, 82 community members, including students and parents, testified at the Board of Education headquarters.

The school board is scheduled to approve a plan Nov. 21.

Many audience members were wearing purple T-shirts with the phrases “Keep Dickinson Together” written across the front. Many testified, urging the school board to keep several neighborhoods in the Dickinson area of Columbia together. Under the proposed plan, three Dickinson neighborhoods, referred to as polygons, are being sent from Atholton Elementary to Guilford Elementary.

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Bert Roberts, the principal architect of Robert Architects, has three children in the school system and lives in the Dickinson community. All of his children would be affected under the proposed plan.

“If our polygons have to be relocated, we propose that we move to Hammond Elementary, the other current school that Dickinson [community] students attend,” Roberts testified.

After his testimony, Roberts stressed that the community is not against redistricting but rather, that residents want to stay within their community and have their children attend the same schools that residents of the other Dickinson neighborhoods do.

Five members of Pointers United, a group representing more than 450 residents, testified for the school board to keep their Columbia neighborhoods attending either Pointers Run or Clarksville elementary schools.

Jaspreet Singh, one of the members, highlighted the group’s diverse community, as each of the members testifying represented the Sikh, Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities.

“My wife and I intentionally choose this racially diverse community that provides my children balanced and relatable culture,” Singh said. “If this proposal were to go through, racial minorities such as my family will be deeply affected.”

Members of the Wilde Lake Parent Teacher Student Association also testified Tuesday.

"As a PTSA we have wrestled with how to respond to redistricting. We are not a group to just say no, not my kids, not my community, not my school. Instead we are choosing to say yes, yes to ensure small feeds don’t exist across the county, yes to balancing impact on school communities, yes to equity for all of our students, [and] yes to redistricting the hearts and minds of Howard County,” said Linda Leslie, a PTSA member.

Wilde Lake is projected to send 132 students to River Hill and 65 students to Oakland Mills. The high school would receive 276 River Hill students.

“Across the county many of our fellow citizens see our school as less desirable than other schools,” Leslie said. “Regardless of the facts, they fear being redistricted to Wilde Lake.”

Daniel Newberger, a Columbia resident, testified in support of Martirano’s proposal.

“The research and evidence is clear: Schools that are socially, economically and racially integrated, produce better outcomes for all children,” Newberger said.

His two daughters currently attend Pointers Run and are being proposed to attend Swansfield Elementary, where they “will also receive an excellent education,” he said.

Amid the nearly 200 people protesting outside the school board office before the hearing, Larry Walker, the deputy pastor at Celebration Church in Columbia, was holding up a sign that read: “AACR, [the] African American Community Roundtable, Supports Super [Superintendent] Plan.”

Walker, who is the president of the AACR, attended the protest as an individual. The 1976 Wilde Lake graduate’s two sons graduated from Mt. Hebron High School.

“I recognize that there has been a history of segregation in our schools that has overpopulated certain schools with low-income families,” said Walker, an Ellicott City resident.

Walker calls Martirano’s proposal “bold,” as it looks to address poverty levels within schools.

Addressing community reactions about the proposal, many in opposition, Walker said, “I can’t imagine how low-income families feel in hearing from their neighbors in civil Columbia.

“This isn’t the Columbia of Jim Rouse … if he was alive, he would be holding a sign with me.”

Also outside were members of Pointers United, wearing their tie-dyed shirts. The members said they want their diverse neighborhoods to stay together and have their children attend the community schools.

“The tie-dye [shirts] represents our diverse community,” said Swathi Lanka, a Columbia resident whose child attends Pointers Run.

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The group doesn’t oppose redistricting but rather feels that “the plan is not strong enough in solving underlying problems,” Lanka said.

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A similar protest occurred at last week’s hearing at which families from Centennial, Howard, Mt. Hebron and Oakland Mills high schools or their feeder schools testified.

Thursday’s 6 p.m. hearing will be the first of three for families whose children attend Glenelg, Marriotts Ridge, Reservoir or River Hill or their feeder schools. Two additional hearings are scheduled for Oct. 7 and 8.

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