Parents of last year's fourth grade class at Elmer A. Wolfe Elementary School in Union Bridge don't understand why their children are treated differently from all the other fourth-graders in Carroll County public schools.
This fall, in all likelihood, their children will not be returning to Elmer Wolfe, but will attend school at New Windsor Middle School.
For at least 24 years, Elmer Wolfe fifth-graders have been pulled from the protective confines of an elementary school and thrown into the more rough-and-tumble halls of a middle school, where seventh- and eighth-grade bullies delight in intimidating the fifth-graders.
Last week, four parents of prospective fifth graders poured out their concerns and wondered why the Carroll school system was having such difficulty in giving them what other parents in the county and most other locales take for granted.
Suzanne Stultz, the mother of four sons, recounted how the older boys at New Windsor Middle School were so abusive toward one of her sons -- stealing his lunch money and punching him -- that he came to hate school.
"I can't help but wonder if his negative experience in the fifth grade had an adverse impact on him and his academic career," she said.
Deborah Doxzon, a neighbor who has a daughter entering the fifth grade, said she knew of a parent who had to walk his son into the building each morning just to avoid the bullies who perched on the front steps of New Windsor Middle School like jackals awaiting their prey.
Mrs. Doxzon said she worries that her immature and impressionable daughter might not be prepared to deal with the pressures of middle school, particularly teen-age boys with raging hormones. "I don't want her to grow up faster than she has too," Mrs. Doxzon said.
Many parents also don't like the fact that the fifth-graders ride school buses with high school students as well as middle schoolers. "The topic high schoolers are talking about are not what I want my kids talking about," said another parent, Vickie Mastalerz.
The Elmer Wolfe parents have other concerns, too. At New Windsor Middle, the academic and activities programs are naturally oriented toward older children. There haven't been any Chapter I classes (a federally funded program for disadvantaged students) for New Windsor Middle school fifth-graders. There are no computer labs. There are fewer assemblies.
"As far as we could tell, there is no advantage to sending these children to New Windsor Middle School," Mrs. Mastalerz said.
When Elmer Wolfe Principal Mary E. Stong headed an effort by the staff, teachers and parents to keep the fourth graders at the elementary school, these parents rejoiced.
Even though parents had made some efforts over the past generation to correct this situation, the involvement of the principal warmed hopes that change might be forthcoming. "We thought that with the backing of the principal, there would be no problem in approving the plan," Mrs. Doxzon said.
Then-Superintendent R. Edward Shilling delegated the matter to Brian Lockard, then the deputy superintendent, who just recently was promoted to take Mr. Shilling's place as the system's top administrator. After consulting with Dottie Mangle, director of elementary schools, Dr. Lockard denied the request.
When asked to reconsider, Dr. Lockard again turned down the school's proposal.
What frustrates the parents is that Dr. Lockard admitted that Elmer Wolfe could house fifth-graders next year. He acknowledged there are a number of problems that would have to be overcome, but said "those challenges could be met."
The major impediment is the Early Elementary Education Program, a half-day nursery school program that occupies two Elmer Wolfe classrooms. If the school were to include fifth-graders, the nursery program would have to find other space.
Dr. Lockard wants to keep the nursery program at Elmer Wolfe. "I continue to believe that the Elmer Wolfe children are better served by the facility housing a pre-kindergarten to grade four program than they would be by housing a kindergarten to grade five program," he wrote Mrs. Mastalerz.
He cited research that showed children who participated in the nursery school programs benefited over the long term. As they grew older, they were more likely to do better in school, less likely to become pregnant as teens or commit crimes.
While the parents support the EEEP program, they believe the school system should first take care of the needs of the elementary school students. They believe that the wrong influences on their children could produce the very results school administrators are hoping to prevent through the early education programs.
They also don't understand why they have to jump over so many hurdle to get fifth-graders to stay in elementary school. A number of them think it is because they live in the western end of Carroll County, which they feel has traditionally been neglected.
"We are always slighted," Mrs. Doxzon said. "I want my kids to have a good education. I'm tired of this end of the county being ignored."
Added Mrs. Stultz:, "I can't understand why we aren't winning [the argument] when they tell us it should and can be done, but it isn't."
Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.