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Howard County Times
Howard County

Rising sophomores exempt from Howard school board redistricting, except those reassigned to new Jessup high school

Howard County’s Board of Education narrowly voted Monday to exempt rising sophomores from redistricting beginning next school year, except for those students reassigned to the county’s 13th high school set to open in Jessup next fall.

The motion passed 4-3, with board members Jennifer Swickard Mallo, Jolene Mosley and Vice Chair Antonia Watts voting against.

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“I understand why many in our community are advocating for this,” Mallo said ahead of the vote. “At the same time, I would encourage my colleagues to vote ‘no.’ The reason is that we will create a disparate system of haves and have nots.”

More than a dozen Mount Hebron High School parents and current ninth-graders, many holding “Class of 2026″ signs and dressed in black and gold, sat in the boardroom and celebrated the decision. Prior to the exemption, the board’s plan would have reassigned nearly 400 Mount Hebron students to Howard High School.

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Mount Hebron parent and Ellicott City resident Ritesh Kataria, 47, said it was important to allow ninth-grade students the opportunity to remain at their school, especially “given that we’ve been through so much in the last two-and-a-half years with COVID.”

Ritesh’s son, Rishi Kataria, a Mount Hebron freshman, testified at a September public hearing alongside classmates, urging the board not to break up bonds students had formed at current high schools.

“We’ve been battling this for many months,” Rishi, 14, said Monday. “It’s good to see an outcome from this. It would have been hard, shifting to a new school midway through my high school career.”

While the exemption included Mount Hebron freshmen, about 400 ninth-graders from Hammond, Howard and Long Reach high schools will now make up the inaugural sophomore class at the county’s newest high school when it opens next fall.

Howard freshman John Dingle, 14, who will be redistricted to high school 13, said it felt like the board was singling out his community in Elkridge and that the move would create a longer commute.

“It really seems like they don’t really care about any of us throughout [Elkridge],” said Dingle, who is active in the robotics, coding and Dungeons & Dragons clubs at Howard.

His mother, Ileka Dingle, questioned why the board differentiated among rising sophomores when the entire class experienced the same hardships because of the pandemic.

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“My son is loving Howard,” said Dingle, 43. “Now you take them and now he’s going to be the highest grade in this brand new school. ... They’re not exempt, but every other school is exempt, because we care about everyone else’s mental health except for our kids, apparently.”

Elkridge residents and officials frequently spoke out against preliminary plans for disproportionately affecting their community. They argued students redistricted from Howard and Long Reach high schools in the county’s far northeast would face a difficult commute down Route 1, in addition to being separated on a geographic “island” from their high school 13 peers.

The school board preliminary plan’s high school redistricting map for when Howard County’s 13th high school opens in the fall of 2023 in Jessup.

“I’m glad for the [high school 13] ninth-graders that they won’t be the only ones at the new school,” said Elkridge resident Meg Ricks, 41, whose daughter is a Howard freshman and will also be redistricted to high school 13. “But it does feel kind of like they’re singling out particular communities that they wanted to keep happy and other communities that they didn’t care about as much.”

Ricks, who ran for an at-large school board seat but lost in the July primary, says she’s also worried about the decision’s impact on rising sophomores at Hammond, Howard and Long Reach, given their numbers will no longer be backfilled.

A motion to exempt all rising sophomores, while still allowing students to enter 10th grade at high school 13 if they wished, failed 4-3. School officials warned that an opt-in system would create dangerously low sophomore numbers when the new high school opened.

During the previous redistricting process in 2019, only about 15% of students opted into a new school when given the choice, according to Executive Director of Program Innovation and Student Well-Being Caroline Walker.

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“Based on that estimate, you could end up with 50 10th graders, which would be a challenge to staff at high school 13,” Walker explained.

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Mosley agreed and noted that opening a new high school with only freshmen would negatively affect the class and limit their options for course offerings, clubs and sports.

“We made the decision to build the school,” Mosley said. “We have to open the school with a capacity that can have opportunities and experiences for the students that will attend that school. It’s not fair to [ninth-graders] to have that full burden on their shoulders for their entire high school career.”

Board member Christina Delmont-Small, who represents District 1, which includes the Greater Elkridge area, said the decision to single out rising sophomores at high school 13 was not easy, but ultimately she wanted the school to open with robust ninth- and 10th-grade classes.

She also argued that sophomores’ experiences at high school 13 would be fundamentally different from students redistricted to other high schools.

“Moving to an established school is different than moving to a new school,” Delmont-Small said. “When you move to a new school, you are one of others who are new to an experience and you’re experiencing together. What that does, I think, is it bonds the students and it does create a class.”

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In addition to rising sophomores outside of high school 13, the board voted to exempt students with Individualized Education Program or 504 plans and students with one or more parents on active military duty.

The board is set to formally adopt the preliminary redistricting plan Thursday, capping weeks of work sessions and public feedback after the superintendent’s initial proposal on Sept. 1.


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