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As principal of Talbott Springs Elementary School, Nancy Thompson works every day to provide an atmosphere where every child feels a sense of belonging. However, some future residents question the Columbia elementary school’s integrity due to its Title I status.

“I get calls where people say, ‘I’m moving to the area and I hear you’re a Title I school. Tell me about [student] behavior,’ ” Thompson said.

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“Children in Title I schools are children," she said. "They are simply children.”

Title I is a federal program that provides funding to schools with high numbers or percentages of children from low-income families. The funding is to ensure all students have equal access to educational opportunities.

The funding is determined by child poverty percentages in the federal census.

When the Howard County Public School System receives its funding, the schools are ranked in order of the highest concentration of students who participate in the free and reduced-price meals program, or FARMs, to the lowest concentration, according to Caroline Walker, executive director of the school system’s program innovation and student well-being.

The school system has chosen to direct Title I funding only to elementary schools, to provide early intervention for students, Walker said. Any elementary school where 22.5% or more of the students are receiving free and reduced-price meals is eligible. If a school’s FARMs rate is 40% or higher, all students enrolled there — regardless of whether they are from families living at or below the poverty level — will benefit from Title I funding.

Talbott Springs Elementary in Columbia is one of the Howard County school system’s 13 Title I schools. The others are:

  • Bollman Bridge, Jessup
  • Bryant Woods, Columbia
  • Cradlerock, Columbia
  • Deep Run, Elkridge
  • Guilford, Columbia
  • Laurel Woods, Laurel
  • Longfellow, Columbia
  • Phelps Luck, Columbia
  • Running Brook, Columbia
  • Stevens Forest, Columbia
  • Swansfield, Columbia
  • Ducketts Lane, Elkridge

There were approximately 7,300 students enrolled in Howard’s Title I schools as of Sept. 12.

As the school system embarks on a comprehensive redistricting process that could lead to moving nearly 7,400 students to different schools for the 2020-21 academic year, one of the tenets of Superintendent Michael Martirano’s recommendation is to address inequities in the distribution of students affected by poverty.

Martirano’s proposal recommends relocating students to reduce high overall FARMs rates to get schools closer to the county’s average of 22.5%.

Talbott Springs keeps its ‘eye on the prize’

Outside of Talbott Springs Elementary, there is a Little Free Library, a garden filled with plants native to the Columbia area including black-eyed Susan and the school’s vision statement on display.

“Talbott Springs Elementary School empowers every student with the academic and social-emotional skills to positively impact our collective future as responsible world citizens,” the vision statement says.

Thompson said she doesn’t feel the need to defend Talbott Springs being a Title I school, and she doesn’t take a stand that one school is better than another.

“I keep my eye on the prize, and the prize is that each one of these kids has access to learning and feels that he or she belongs,” she said.

Thompson has been the principal at Talbott Springs since 2007. She was previously an assistant principal at Stevens Forest Elementary and a teacher at Elkridge Elementary.

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“One of the biggest challenges here and at Stevens Forest is to counteract the perception that if a child is living in poverty, that child is bad for some reason,” she said. “It is one of the most egregious perceptions.”

Thompson invites people, including real estate agents who will speak to potential homeowners about the quality of the schools in the district, to visit Talbott Springs so they can judge for themselves.

With the Title I funding, Talbott Springs has additional intervention staff to help students and their families, as well as a Family Involvement Team that helps ensure families attend important school events or, when deemed necessary, conducts home visits.

Talbott Springs has both a part-time math support teacher and a reading support teacher.

These staff members “help the teacher to be a better teacher for every child,” Thompson said.

Talbott Springs PTA hosts several family-oriented activities to promote the school’s community, including an annual back-to-school outdoor movie night, a craft night and a trunk-or-treat event.

The Talbott Springs PTA also is involved, hosting educational events that include reading and math nights where families participate in activities with their children; a science fair where all the materials are provided by the school; and Green Apple Day where students participate in environmentally sustainable service projects.

The school has a community garden and each year during the harvest families are welcome to come and take food.

Earlier this month, the school had a bookmobile drive around neighborhoods to give each student a nonfiction book, answer questions about Talbott Springs, and provide information about the school’s lending library and how to sign up to borrow materials for instructional needs.

The school also supports families during the holiday season, and the nonprofit Sleep in Heavenly Peace has provided beds to children who otherwise would not have one.

Many parents are extremely thankful, expressing their gratitude all the time, Thompson said.

“One of the happiest things for me about this job is the relationships that are built among myself, my whole school staff and the community,” she said.

Talbott Springs FARMs rate is 50%, which would decrease to 46% if the redistricting recommendation is approved. Under the proposal, Talbott Springs would receive 120 students from Thunder Hill Elementary and send 126 students to Stevens Forest Elementary.

Swansfield Elementary is ‘a community school’

About 4 miles from Talbott Springs is Swansfield Elementary, another Title I school.

Swansfield has a FARMs rate of 61%; however, under the redistricting recommendation, the rate would drop to 44%.

Principal Laurel Porter has spent her entire career in Title I schools. She began as a math support teacher at Swansfield nearly 17 years ago. She became an assistant principal and then principal of Longfellow Elementary, before coming back to Swansfield three years ago.

A portable camera unit shown in front of Swansfield Elementary School on Cedar Lane in Columbia in 2013.
A portable camera unit shown in front of Swansfield Elementary School on Cedar Lane in Columbia in 2013. (File photo by Stan Rappaport)

Porter is also a product of the Howard County Public School System. She attended Dasher Green Elementary and Owen Brown Middle schools — now Cradlerock Elementary and Lake Elkhorn Middle — and graduated from Oakland Mills High.

The best part about her job is interacting with students, she said, from the formal and informal conversations to everything in-between.

“Each time is completely different,” Porter said. “But those moments with kids, those are my highlights.”

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Swansfield Elementary opened in 1972 and has continued to serve “a wonderfully diverse population representing many countries from around the world” for the past 47 years, according to its school profile.

The overarching theme of Swansfield is being a community school.

“Everything is based on building staff, student and family relationships and relationships among families. There’s a lot of families that don’t want to leave Swansfield,” Porter said of the school, which opened in 1972.

Kelly Klinefelter Lee, former president of Swansfield’s PTA, has had two children attend Swansfield and her youngest son is a fifth grader. Her older children went on to attend Harpers Choice Middle and Wilde Lake High.

While Lee said she supports the school system’s redistricting process and recognizes that “the concentration of FARMs does put an undue burden in our schools,” she wants her youngest son to attend the same schools as her other children.

“I don’t want my son to go to River Hill High School. I want my son to go to Wilde Lake High and Harpers Choice Middle,” Lee said.

Under Martirano’s proposed redistricting plan, approximately 200 students would move from Swansfield to either Clarksville or Longfellow elementary schools.

In return, Swansfield would receive 262 students from Clemens Crossing and Pointers Run.

Being a Title I school, opportunities and additional support being provided at Swansfield include a science fair; Blessings in a Backpack; an after-school grant-funded homework program called Bridges; and reading and math nights for parents to attend with their child.

Even with support from the school system, Title I funding and extra staff, Lee said, “Swansfield does have challenges because we serve a community that has great need.

“It’s a matter of having the neediest kids concentrated and then a school population not being able to raise the money to support them,” she said.

The PTA raises between $5,000 and $7,000 a year, with a majority of the funds going straight into providing basic needs for the school’s families, including providing meals and events and books for a family book club, Lee said.

The PTA has “worked really hard” to increase parent involvement, with monthly family night events, including game nights and potluck dinners, Lee said.

A big part of receiving Title I funding is being able to budget for additional staff, Porter said. For the first time, Swansfield has two school counselors, with one covering kindergartners through second graders and the other focusing on third through fifth graders.

A fifth teacher was added to both the second and fifth grades for this school year to allow for class sizes to be reduced. When determining where an additional classroom should go between grade levels, school administration looks at overall class sizes, student performance levels and behavioral data.

Swansfield also has a full-time math support teacher and a reading support teacher.

Lee, a Columbia resident, works as a 12th grade Advanced Placement English teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School in Baltimore City.

As a teacher and advocate, Lee said she has seen children struggle to learn when they come from families that are challenged financially.

At Howard’s Title I schools, “The teachers on average are less experienced, [which is] not necessarily a bad thing as young teachers bring energy and new ideas,” but there is also high teacher turnover at Swansfield, according to Lee.

“Students, especially needy students, need to make strong relationships with adults in their schools," Lee said.

Thompson has lived in the Talbott Springs attendance area for the past eight years and feels “very blessed” to work in Columbia.

“The vision of James [Jim] Rouse was about access to opportunities for everyone and I love to live that concept,” she said.

“Everybody’s child deserves the same chance. Don’t we just want our kids to be their best self? It’s just a simple idea.”

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