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Howard redistricting: Superintendent proposes moving 7,300 students to address overcrowding, poverty inequities

Howard County School Superintendent, Michael Martirano during a school board meeting in Ellicott City.
Howard County School Superintendent, Michael Martirano during a school board meeting in Ellicott City. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

In Howard County Superintendent Michael Martirano’s redistricting proposal released Thursday, he recommends moving more than 7,300 students to alleviate existing overcrowding, addressing inequities in the distribution of students affected by poverty and establishing a road map for students who will eventually attend the county’s 13th high school.

These were Martirano’s “three guiding tenets” as he and the school administration worked to develop the recommendation.

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Martirano “wants the community to understand why we are doing this.”

“This [the proposal] 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 interview.

The proposal is looking to reassign approximately 7,396 students, including 3,194 elementary, 1,351 middle and 2,851 high school students.

“If I’m going to move 7,300 kids, it better yield results,” Martirano said.

Martirano presented his comprehensive redistricting proposal for the 2020-2021 academic year before the Board of Education on Thursday night. The presentation was originally scheduled for Tuesday evening, but it was delayed due to technical difficulties and a power outage.

His presentation was strictly recommendations for the redistricting process. No redistricting plan is final until the school board votes to approve a plan in November. In January, the school board unanimously approved to direct Martirano to begin a comprehensive redistricting process.

The school board will review Martirano’s recommendations over the next three months.

The school board did not ask questions, nor did any members make comments after Martirano’s presentation.

Once approved, the plan has the potential to affect the district’s 74 comprehensive schools. Three schools — the Applications Research Laboratory, Homewood Center and Cedar Lane — are categorized as non-comprehensive and will not be part of the process.

Martirano’s proposal addresses students who participate in the school system’s free and reduced-price meals program, also known as FARMs.

The county average of student populations enrolled in FARMs is 22.5%. Martirano’s recommendations look to have all schools with high overall FARMs rates reduced and to move many schools closer to the county’s average.

At the elementary level, Martirano is proposing for no school to have a FARMs rate higher than 54%; for middle schools the rate would become no higher than 45%; and at the high school level, the FARMs level would be 42% or lower under the recommendations.

If the board approves Martirano’s recommendations as is, the schools with the highest FARMs levels will drop at the following rates:

  • Stevens Forest Elementary in Columbia: 68% to 54%
  • Phelps Luck Elementary in Columbia: 63% to 36%
  • Swansfield Elementary in Columbia: 61% to 44%
  • Laurel Woods Elementary in Laurel: 61% to 49%
  • Ducketts Lane Elementary in Elkridge: 55% to 49%
  • Lake Elkhorn Middle in Columbia: 53% to 41%
  • Harper’s Choice Middle in Columbia: 52% to 34%
  • Oakland Mills Middle in Columbia: 48% to 45%
  • Wilde Lake Middle in Columbia: 47% to 45%
  • Thomas Viaduct Middle in Hanover: 45% to 42%
  • Long Reach High in Columbia: 47% to 42%
  • Wilde Lake High in Columbia: 46% to 38%
  • Oakland Mills High in Columbia: 45% to 41%

For capacity issues, moving students allows for more schools to settle into the school system’s target utilization parameter, which is 90% to 110% capacity. Fifty-three schools will be moved into the target utilization, leaving 16 schools at capacities higher than 110%, with the highest being 121%, and five schools under 90% capacity, with the lowest being 75%.

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Currently, there are 42 schools within the capacity parameter, 21 schools higher than 110% with the highest being 136%, and 11 schools under capacity with the lowest being 70%.

“We have made some significant adjustments … in balancing capacity and the FARMs rate,” Martirano said.

Howard’s 77-school district had nearly 57,000 students enrolled for the 2018-2019 academic year. For the coming school year, an enrollment growth of 850 students, or 1.4%, across all grade levels is projected, school officials previously said.

The county’s 13th high school will be built in Jessup and is scheduled to open for the 2023-2024 academic year.

Last week, three County Council members called on the school system to create a countywide integration plan to “desegregate” schools. In a joint new release, council members Christiana Mercer Rigby, Opel Jones and Deb Jung announced they are introducing a resolution in September.

The release said current “school district boundaries in Howard County are drawn in a manner that concentrate students participating in the Free and Reduced Meals program [FARMS] into certain elementary, middle, and high schools.”

In an interview, Rigby had said there is “an opportunity now to balance [student] capacity, and to better balance our FARMs capacity in all our schools.”

Rigby and Jones were not immediately available for comment Thursday, and Jung did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

When Martirano was asked if he changed any part of his proposal after news of the council resolution came out, he said, “Absolutely not.”

This is the first comprehensive redistricting plan in the county’s history, Martirano said.

In years prior, redistricting has been “limited in scope,” as the decisions were made around the opening of new schools.

From 1989 to 2007, 20 schools across all grade levels were built in Howard County.

Since 2007, four schools have been built — Veterans Elementary, Ducketts Lane Elementary, Hanover Hills Elementary and Thomas Viaduct Middle — and two schools were replaced with new buildings — Bushy Park Elementary and Wilde Lake Middle.

Before the vote, the school board will hold seven work sessions and three public hearings ahead of the scheduled Nov. 21 decision.

In the four July community input sessions, 800 people attended with 2,176 surveys and 276 alternative scenarios submitted.

Martirano stressed that “all Howard County schools are excellent … all of our schools are top notch.”

He also “implored” everyone, including community members, to maintain civil tones during the redistricting process.

“I want the community to know we need to be proud of all of our schools, [and to] not pit one school community against another because our kids are listening,” Martirano said.

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