Following a protest outside of the Howard County Public School System building, around 50 students and community members testified Wednesday night at a public hearing against Superintendent Michael Martirano’s proposed redistricting plan.
More than a dozen Mount Hebron High School students, many wearing black-and-gold shirts emblazoned with their class years, urged the board not to reassign them to Howard High School, as the plan proposes.
“It was like a balloon popped when it was recommended that my community should be redistricted,” said freshman Safi Rahman, who said he spent the summer training to earn a spot on Mount Hebron’s soccer team. “For the past few weeks, my friends and I have been in a haze, wanting to get involved in our current school but not wanting to get too attached because it may no longer be our school soon.”
The public hearing was the second held since Martirano presented the Proposed Attendance Area Adjustment Plan on Sept. 1. The hearings are meant to allow for community input on the plan to the Board of Education, which did not respond directly to any testimony Wednesday. The board must adopt boundaries for the 2023-24 school year by Nov. 17.
In anticipation of the opening of the county’s 13th public high school in Jessup next fall, Martirano’s plan would reassign approximately 2,555 high school students and 46 middle school students in an effort to relieve overcrowding throughout the system and populate the new high school.
Nearly 1,000 students from the Elkridge area would be moved from Long Reach and Howard high schools to the new high school in Jessup and 391 Mount Hebron students would be sent to Howard to relieve overcrowding at Mount Hebron. More than 500 Reservoir High School students would relocate to Hammond High School.
Students spoke about academic, social and mental challenges caused by switching high schools, particularly after their educations already had been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As we thought our mental health was slowly recovering, and as we finally got situated in the first week of high school, the [superintendent] announced [his] plan of redistricting us to Howard,” said Lay Shah, a Mount Hebron ninth grader.
“Interrupting students’ high school, especially after the first year, is probably the worst thing one can do. I’ve already built so many relationships with friends, soccer team, club, orchestra, ensembles, counselors, teachers and many more.”
HCPSS Policy 6010, which outlines how school area adjustments occur, exempts only rising 12th graders from reassignment. Mount Hebron students and parents asked that all current high schoolers, or at least rising juniors, be allowed to remain at their current schools. The school board may also consider exemptions for students who have already been reassigned once within the past five years.
In addition to student testimony, a number of Elkridge and Hanover residents spoke, continuing to argue that the proposed plan would break up their communities and lead to a difficult and dangerous commute along Route 1 and Interstate 95 to the new high school in Jessup.
“Our sense of community on Route 1 runs east to west to avoid congested industrial travel, not north to south,” said parent Rebecca Vivrette, of Hanover. “The well-being of our neighbors, who are struggling financially or have limited transportation, is so much more important to us than a shiny, new building.”
Howard County Council member Liz Walsh, a Democrat representing District 1, which includes Elkridge, testified that the proposal was the result of years of failure by the county officials to address rapid growth in the greater Elkridge area. Walsh is seeking reelection this year.
Under the plan, Walsh said, Elkridge residents would be “sentenced to be bused down a lanes-wide state highway, alongside massive tractor-trailers that travel to and from literal distribution centers every hour of the day, every day of the week.”
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Many parents asked the board to consider Figure B-8 from the appendices of the 2022 Feasibility Study as an alternative. B-8 tried to “equally balance all of the criteria studied,” and would keep most Elkridge residents at Long Reach and Howard high schools but still reassign more than 5,300 students.
“B-8 is not perfect and would certainly need tweaking,” said Hanover resident Leslie Kornreich. “But it is a better starting point than this plan, which puts all of Elkridge at a disadvantage.”
Applause filled the board room after each speaker, and parents and students alike stressed the need for continuity, both for their communities and for their high schools.
“Day in and day out, every day, before school, during school and after school, we talk about [Mount Hebron] Viking pride and how that is what resonates between every single student,” said Mount Hebron ninth grader Amogh Pawar. “We’re stuck in a place where you’re constantly being tested and our education is being altered. What will it take for our generation to get a proper, undisturbed education?”
The board has scheduled an additional public hearing for Oct. 19 if there is a public demand for more testimony. Public work sessions, during which the board will discuss the superintendent’s proposal and potential modifications, are scheduled for Sept. 21, 28; Oct. 3, 13, 27; Nov. 2 and 14. All begin at 4 p.m.