Howard County Public School System Superintendent Michael Martirano has proposed a significant redistricting that would move nearly 7,400 students to ease overcrowding and address inequities.
“This 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 would reassign approximately 7,396 students, including 3,194 elementary, 1,351 middle and 2,851 high school students.
Presented to the Howard County Board of Education on Thursday night, Martirano’s comprehensive redistricting proposal for the 2020-2021 academic year is only a recommendation. The school board would need to vote to approve any final plan. It plans to hold three public hearings and seven work sessions before its scheduled vote on Nov. 21.
Martirano said he “wants the community to understand why we are doing this.” He said he and the schools administration developed the recommendation with “three guiding tenets.”
Not only would the proposal alleviate existing overcrowding, he said, but it would address inequities in the distribution of students affected by poverty and establish a road map for students who eventually will attend the county’s 13th high school.
“If I’m going to move 7,300 kids, it better yield results,” Martirano said.
The school board voted unanimously in January to direct Martirano to begin a comprehensive redistricting process. Originally, he was scheduled to make the anticipated presentation Tuesday evening, but it was delayed until Thursday due to technical difficulties and a power outage.
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 all of 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.
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 have said.
Martirano’s proposal focuses on addressing students who participate in the school system’s free and reduced-price meals program, known as FARMs.
The county average of students enrolled in FARMs is 22.5%. Martirano’s recommendations aim to reduce the rate of FARMs students at schools with high rates and move them closer to the county average.
Martirano is proposing no elementary school 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 without change, it would reduce FARMs rates at the schools with the highest levels as follows:
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%
The proposed redistricting also would address overcrowding by shifting students to put more schools into the system’s target of 90% to 110% utilization of capacity.
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%.
With the proposed redistricting, 53 schools would 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%.
“We have made some significant adjustments … in balancing capacity and the FARMs rate,” Martirano said.
The proposal also would position the school population to feed the county’s 13th high school, to be built in Jessup and scheduled to open for the 2023-2024 academic year.
It also appears to address a call issued last week by three County Council members 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.”
There is “an opportunity now to balance [student] capacity, and to better balance our FARMs capacity in all our schools,” Rigby said in a interview.
Rigby and Jones were not available for comment, and Jung did not respond to a request for comment.
Asked if he changed the redistricting proposal in response to the council members, Martirano said: “Absolutely not.”
This is the first comprehensive redistricting plan in the county’s history, Martirano said. In prior years, redistricting has been “limited in scope,” as the decisions were made around the opening of new schools.
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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.
In the four July community input sessions on redistricting, 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.
Jess Nocera is a reporter for the Howard County Times. She covers education, crime and the court system. Previously, Jess was a reporter for the Bristol Herald Courier. A University of Maryland graduate, Jess received a degree in journalism and government and politics and wrote for The Diamondback, Capital News Service and interned with McClatchy.