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Other Voices: Redistricting plan is a great start to keeping Howard schools among best in the country

Howard County is taking a bold step forward to address the economic segregation of the Howard County Public School System and the resultant inequity that is emerging.

While the public comment period was open and engaging dialogue, I have been deeply troubled by the nature of some of the comments and behaviors that have emerged from a community known for tolerance and civility in response to the proposed plan for redistricting that would impact a small minority of the county’s more than 57,000 students. The negative comments have ranged from general outrage to blatant racist commentary that negatively targets African American students and their families.

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The protest I observed in the downtown district near The Mall in Columbia in September was probably the first sign of a disturbing shift within the community. A seemingly demographically homogeneous group of citizens marched through an area founded by Jim Rouse — who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work improving the built environment through effective community design — with signs designed to maintain the new status quo.

The protest against desegregation in the name of “keeping neighborhoods together” using a “separate but equal” schools design seemed to be a throwback to the 1950s and counter to the revolutionary concepts that later girded Rouse’s vision for Columbia to become an economically and racially diverse community founded on the belief that segregation is immoral.

These parents may not be aware of the quiet and less publicized moves other children have been making through redistricting over the past decade. Many children have been riding Howard County school buses out of their neighborhoods since kindergarten to attend school in neighboring communities. My own children do so and have been affected by prior redistricting efforts, the oldest twice. For them, it has meant the loss of a few friends and beloved teachers and the gain of new ones. It has also resulted in being surrounded by greater economic, racial/ethnic and cultural diversity in the school environment.

Despite the deep-seated fears of potentially affected families, our kids won’t be derailed because they are redistricted as long as HCPSS continues to offer novel, high-quality programming designed to optimize the educational offerings for all of our students and parents don’t stop being engaged in their education.

I would warn families about the work involved in trying to transition their students to private school as it may be even more disruptive because of the required culture shift to build relationships with teachers and to climb a new kid-controlled political hierarchy alone. The ease of a bus ride directly to their home neighborhood, time to commune with neighbors, the opportunity to be actively involved as a parent in the school due to proximity, the ability to invest in club sports, music lessons and family travel, and the impact on potential college savings should not be dismissed.

With this proposal, there will be a deliberate effort by HCPSS principals and teachers to rebuild the school community after changes to ensure every student has the infrastructure and resources they need to succeed, and the opportunity to create new bonds essential for the degree of school connectedness that drives achievement. It will happen given expectations of our educational leadership, but also because we are all watching and involved in ensuring that it happens for our children.

A 10- to 15-minute bus ride to experience the diversity and talents of children from all kinds of families may be the best gift parents can give to their children. They will learn how to work in diverse teams, build relationships across differences and still experience the best of what HCPSS has to offer. This innovative strategy could be an even more aggressive effort, but it’s a great start to keeping HCPSS among the best in the country and to better prepare our children for the most diverse workforce and society to emerge in American history.

It is also the kind of innovative strategy the American Academy of Pediatrics calls for in a recent policy statement on the “Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health.” I just hope our school board leaders will not cave to the pressures born of fear and privilege and that our state leaders will support our superintendent and this gem in Maryland’s educational portfolio.

Failure to address these issues and innovate has plagued other jurisdictions in our region from truly living up to their educational potential.

Dr. Maria Trent is a pediatrician, adolescent medicine specialist and professor on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and a Howard County resident.

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