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Other Voices: Howard schools need people capable of thinking out of the box, not redistricting

This year, I felt a great deal of resentment when I paid my Howard County taxes because of the contemptible manner in which the school system has treated the children of some of my neighbors.

The problem is easy to understand. A family that only wants to do what is best for their children moves to Howard County, buys a house in a community where they feel they fit in, pays their taxes, sends their children to school, and supports the school and its administrators. They are happy with the school because it meets the educational needs of their children and are comfortable in the community.

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Now along comes Mr. Michael Martirano and the school board to tell them that someone else’s kids are not receiving the same educational opportunity as others in the county and to rectify this they are going to be bused into their school. To make matters worse, our hypothetical family’s children, whose educational needs are being well met where they are, will be bused to the school that is failing the other kids.

One of the writers in your Dec. 5 issue wanted to “assure” us that “your children will get the same quality education wherever they end up.” If that is so, then why must some folks’ children be pulled out of one school and moved to another, indicating a school board judgment that the school is inadequate for them? If the education is the same quality everywhere, then they should be fine where they are. His argument defies logic.

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This scenario describes my family’s experience just over 20 years ago. We were in a school system with a great deal of “economic diversity.” Along with that came poor academics, unchecked disruptive behavior and even crime. At this point we decided to move to Howard County. If only we had had the enlightened wisdom provided by other writers in your Dec. 5 issue, we would have known that this school was improving their “critical thinking skills … leadership skills … problem-solving and creativity.”

Nonetheless, we extended ourselves financially and moved to a Howard County community and school district that we thought would work for us. We have no regrets. Now in their 30s, our children seem to have developed a very high level of all these skills anyway and are thriving as productive adults in environments that range from a community with demographics similar to those of Baltimore city to a university campus.

As a parent, I can say with certainty the proximity of the school to our residence, which enabled much extra-academic activity, and the fact that we and the school were part of the same community, did have a positive impact on my children’s development. Without it, as is being forced on some students by the current school board, their experience would have been greatly diminished.

We have been told repeatedly that research shows this busing will be a positive for all the children involved. I’ve looked at some of this research. For the students from the low-achieving schools, it requires a torturing of the data by one who has decided the result beforehand to tease out a tiny improvement, some of which is non-academic in nature. Not convincing.

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There is actually no educational benefit for the children from the high-achieving school. The best that can be said is that their educations don’t suffer. This is because the parents of these kids work very hard (and perhaps spend money) to be sure they don’t. But they’ve nonetheless been denied the positive benefits my children received from their neighborhood school.

It is said madness can be defined by repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Demographic-based busing has been around a long time. If it was going to remove our educational achievement gap, it would have done so long ago. It was experimented with extensively in the 1970s, a time I well remember, and utterly failed in that objective. And it brought collateral damage to neighborhoods and schools. Now in a burst of insanity we in Howard County think we are somehow special.

Based on experience, we know where this story will go. Inertia will keep the Howard County schools at a high level for the immediate future and charlatans like Mr. Martirano will pop up with bogus data to tell us the plan is working. At some point it will be noted that the demographics of the children in the gifted program and of those being disciplined doesn’t match the demographics of the schools.

The result, as I have personally seen in other school systems, will be school learning environments diminished by a lack of discipline with fewer opportunities for our academically best students who really want to stretch their skills. When they learn that, despite their neighborhood, their children may be intentionally bused to poorer-performing schools, young families desiring the best for their children will begin to look elsewhere. Other solutions to problems such as those my family faced before moving here will emerge in other places where educational excellence is valued, and young families will go there. Howard County as a mecca for those desiring top schools will be diminished.

Who are the big losers? Using past busing experience, we can expect in 40 more years to have an undiminished educational achievement gap. The losers will be the children at the lower end who continue to fail academically. Our county will continue into the future with this highly divisive problem, which we all agree should be corrected.

What is desperately needed at this time is school administrators who are the antithesis of Mr. Martirano, capable of creatively thinking out of the box for true educational solutions, not the failed policies of the past that we seem to be locked into repeating. We need educators with those “critical thinking and problem-solving skills.” Skills that were developed at a high level within the pre-Martirano Howard County schools.

The writer is an Ellicott City resident.

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