Parents measure schools Centennial group wary of transfer to Wilde Lake

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nobody likes change. That's why this year's talk of school boundary line changes has brought out scores of protesting parents, particularly at the high school level.

When the school board meets Tuesday to draw new boundaries, it will decide a particularly fractious issue. The board will determine the fate of nearly 300 Centennial High School students tentatively slated to go to Wilde Lake High, which traditionally has ranked at the top in academics among county schools but has slid to the bottom in test scores the past three years.

More than 100 parents from the top-ranked Centennial district pulled out all the stops to dissuade the school board from sending their children to Wilde Lake at two recent public hearings. They pointed out differences between the schools' academic programs as well as their performances on standardized and functional tests.

Director of High Schools Daniel Jett believes the contrasts being made between the two schools are unfair. He'd rather people track school performance over years.

Howard County is "just a darn good school system, and students are getting a good education wherever they go," he said. "Given strong parental support and good academic work from their students, parents will be pleased with the education their children get at Wilde Lake. Their academic and career future will be realized."

In some ways, the two schools are remarkably similar.

Both compare favorably in terms of teachers and their experience -- Centennial has a dozen more teachers, but only because the school has more students. Teachers with more than 15 years of experience make up nearly 60 percent of the staff at both schools.

Both schools also measure up in the number of students they send to college. Of last year's Centennial graduating class, 86 percent went on to college -- 72 percent to four-year universities and 14 percent to community colleges.

Wilde Lake's graduating class saw 83 percent of its students further their education -- 61 percent at four-year colleges and 22 percent at community colleges. Wilde Lake guidance counselors say more of their students choose two-year colleges because they can't afford four-year institutions.

Both high schools have extensive extracurricular programs as well as a solid record of athletic accomplishments. Over three years, beginning in 1990, Centennial garnered 16 county, 11 regional and seven state titles, including back-to-back wins in volleyball and girls' soccer.

Wilde Lake, in the smaller 1A division, dominated football, taking county, regional and state titles the past three years. The school also took state honors in 1991 for boys' soccer.

Test scores and minority student enrollment are the areas where the schools differ most. And some say students' family background and socioeconomic status may explain the disparity.

The location of Wilde Lake -- in Columbia's first and oldest village -- reflects the school's diversity. Its boundaries include Columbia's oldest housing community, Bryant Woods, and one of Columbia's newest, Waterside, a luxury high-rise condominium building. The district includes portions of Harper's Choice, Hickory Ridge and Dorsey's Search, as well as Columbia's largest block of subsidized housing, which is within walking distance of the school.

"When you have students who are from single-parent homes, they have more responsibilities than youngsters from two-parent homes," said Bonnie Daniel, principal at Wilde Lake. "Some are expected to be working as soon as they're out of school."

"The education is just as good as any other school," said Wilde Lake senior Shamim Sinnar, 17. "But since we have a larger population here that doesn't speak English, there needs to be more resources. The county has to recognize and address that problem. It's almost like it's left it up to Wilde Lake to deal with it. The county needs to put more resources in there."

Not that Centennial doesn't have single-parent families, it just has fewer. The school is in an area of affluence, with homes averaging around $250,000. Some of its neighborhoods are new, with homes valued as high as $500,000.

"The community has high expectations for their children," said -- Centennial Principal Sylvia Pattillo. "What we're getting are students who have ability, desires and goals. We're able to make those things come true. Many students aren't satisfied with being average. They want to excel."

"You shouldn't be surprised that some schools score higher than others," said James McPartland, co-director at the Johns Hopkins University's Center for the Social Organization of Schools. "Studies after studies show that schools with more youngsters from a lower socioeconomic background will score lower than students in schools with parents from college backgrounds in more economically advantaged situations."

His finding echoes what Ms. Daniel has been saying all along.

"The best measure of performance is family background, and more specifically, the education level of your parents," she said. "If that's the truth, then for my test scores not to reflect my diversity . . . indicates something's wrong with the test scores and the way we view them."

Among county high schools, Centennial has the highest standardized test scores. It ranked first in SATs last year, with a combined total of 1,057, one point lower than its students achieved the previous year.

"Students who come to us come to us with parents who support education, who provide that well-rounded education," Ms. Pattillo said.

In contrast, Wilde Lake had the lowest SAT scores at 927, about 50 points lower than the county average last year and 50 points lower than the school's score three years ago.

"I would like for some parents to be less worried about test scores," Ms. Daniel said. "Some of my youngsters are struggling, but there are plenty who do just fine. I'd like to think that the youngsters who don't do well on test scores here are doing the best they're doing."

In fact, Wilde Lake fares better than Centennial in "It's Academic" and math competitions -- two teams that have long been strong contenders among county and Baltimore-Washington area schools.

"Wilde Lake has a very good program," said Nat Alston, chairman of Wilde Lake's Black Student Achievement Program parent advisory council. "Centennial has a very good program. It's unfair to point to test scores at Wilde Lake because of [the school's] unique diversity."

The schools fared differently in this year's Maryland State Performance Program Report, an annual school report card. Centennial made "excellent" marks in all categories but one -- attendance -- where it received a "satisfactory" grade.

Wilde Lake scored two "excellent" marks and got four "satisfactory" marks. It failed to meet the state criteria in five categories, including attendance and dropout rates.

Wilde Lake has a higher dropout rate because some of its students have dropped out of other schools and have come to Wilde Lake for another try, Ms. Daniel said. They know they can take more than six credits there, and they aim to take as many as possible to catch up. Some of these students have bad study skills, can't handle the work and drop out again, she said.

Will the transfer really make much difference for Centennial students moved to Wilde Lake?

Research conducted after the school desegregation period tends to show that top students who are transferred to schools with more students from lower socioeconomic groups remain top students, Mr. McPartland said.

"It was found that the top students were not affected by reassignment, but the lower students are more positively affected," he said.

The reasons for this positive effect are not clear, but "expectations are set by top students, so [lower socioeconomic status students] have more role models," said Mr. McPartland, who studies factors affecting student performance. "Perhaps the instruction is aimed at a higher level, and there's more demanding instruction."

While some Centennial parents agree with his assessment, they worry that there's a point where even top students can't succeed because the need to help less-advantaged students is so great.

"I think any kid who's a high achiever will succeed at Wilde Lake, even better than at Centennial, because they'll see that option" of being able to take extra classes, said Marianne Hollerbach, president of the Longfellow Elementary PTA and head of the Longfellow-Beaverbrook-Hobbit's Glen committee on redistricting.

"But at what level does that change?" asks Mrs. Hollerbach, a former high school teacher. "If I would have had 60 percent basic underachievers and 40 percent who were achievers, the underachievers would have taken over the classroom."

Her group, which represents communities including black and Asian students, argued at one hearing that it should remain at Centennial to sustain the school's socioeconomic and racial diversity. A group from the Dorsey Hall neighborhood, also a target for redistricting, argued that being transferred to Wilde Lake would destroy the county's traditional feeder system, in which students from the same elementary and middle schools )) go on to attend the same high school.

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