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Redistricting school lines due to begin Public hearings scheduled over three months; Crowding must be eased; Property values, community loyalty will be affected

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Howard County school system will begin adjusting high school boundary lines this week, a three-month public process that will affect almost every parent, student and homeowner in the county.

At stake will be community allegiances, longer bus rides, property values and perceptions about school quality.

It's sure to be the most watched -- and criticized -- public process in the Howard school system in years, even though it will relieve severe crowding at several county high schools.

"We know going in that not everyone is going to be pleased by our decisions," said Susan Cook, the school board's chairwoman. "When we do something that pleases some people, it'll upset others.

"Everyone talks about how they understand why we need to do this, and they're sympathetic. They just don't want their kids to be the ones who are moved," Ms. Cook said.

Redistricting is nothing new to Howard. The board annually adjusts boundary lines to accommodate rapidly rising student enrollment and the opening of new schools. The 37,500-pupil system is expected to grow by 10,500 students -- and as many as 13 new schools -- in the next decade, requiring students to be shifted to spread out enrollment.

Nearly every annual round of redistricting sparks some conflict, often pitting neighborhoods against each other as parents bicker over what they perceive to be best for their children's education.

What makes this year different is the scope of the expected changes, which will be much larger than in recent years.

The opening of Long Reach and River Hill schools next fall -- the county's first new high schools in almost two decades -- will require the boundary lines of every high school in the county to be adjusted, forcing at least 1,000 high school students to be transferred.

Thousands of younger students also may be shifted among the school system's 10 high-school districts, affecting where they eventually will attend high school.

Even homeowners without children will be affected, as changes in high-school districts often drive up -- or down -- the demand for homes and their prices in particular neighborhoods.

"Every real estate agent in the county pays close attention during redistricting time -- or they should be if they're doing their job right," said Ginger Clark, a 15-year agent with American Property Inc., who specializes in the area around Dunloggin Middle School. "School districts are one of the most important factors in the demand of a particular neighborhood."

For example, the demand for houses in the Dorsey Hall, Beaverbrook, Longfellow and Hobbit's Glen neighborhoods has fallen since the area was redistricted from Centennial High School to Wilde Lake High School in 1994, real estate agents say.

Centennial is perceived by many to be the county's best high school because of its relatively well-off population and high test scores, while Wilde Lake's reputation has suffered as its population has grown more diverse and its test scores have fallen.

Parents in those neighborhoods fought against the redistricting, arguing that their children should stay at Centennial. But the board approved the boundary line change anyway.

"If they hadn't redistricted, I could be asking $30,000 or $40,000 more for my house," said one Hobbit's Glen homeowner whose house is on the market and who asked that his name not be used. "People had come and looked at the house, but many of the people with kids say they'd rather look across [Route] 108" to the Centennial district.

This year's redistricting is almost guaranteed to bring about similar disputes.

Only broad outlines of the new districts have been revealed, but even that information has caused concern and confusion.

"I was pretty sure I was going to be transferred to Howard [High School], but now I hear that I might go to Centennial. I just don't know," said Mount Hebron High School sophomore Christy Faggio, 14, who lives in the Stonecrest Hills neighborhood of Ellicott City. "I'd rather stay at Mount Hebron because I've already been here two years and made friends."

Although specifics won't be available until meetings Wednesday and Thursday, the general proposal is expected to include:

* Transferring about 800 students from Howard High to the new Long Reach High.

* Transferring about 600 students from Glenelg and Atholton high schools to River Hill High.

* Transferring about 50 students from Mount Hebron High School to either Howard or Centennial high schools.

* Transferring students from the Hopewell neighborhood of Columbia's Owen Brown village from Hammond High School to Oakland Mills High School.

Long Reach and River Hill high schools also will receive students from throughout the county who choose to enroll in the new technology magnet programs at these schools. More than 400 )) eighth-graders have expressed interest.

The most controversial decision may be whether to move current sophomores for their junior and seniors years.

Maurice Kalin, the associate superintendent in charge of redistricting, told PTA leaders two weeks ago that he is "99 percent sure" his recommendation will be to transfer next fall's juniors because the full instructional programs cannot be offered in the two new schools with just freshman and sophomores.

But students who expect to be transferred disagree. Many say they fear that switching high schools for their final two years will hurt their chances of participating in extracurricular activities and make it more difficult to obtain teacher recommendations for college.

"I do cheerleading and student government, and it will be hard to get involved in those at a new school," said Glenelg sophomore Sarah Mesa, 15, who expects to be redistricted to the new River Hill High School. "I always thought I'd graduate from Glenelg, I've already spent two years here, and I want to stay."

Some parents say they purchased homes in particular neighborhoods expecting their children to attend a certain school and are surprised by the change.

"We had bought our house here nine years ago because we liked the Glenelg community and wanted our daughter to attend high school there," said Jean Rieg, who lives in Glenelg Manor Estates and has a daughter who is a sophomore at Glenelg. "I was disappointed when I heard about the redistricting."

School officials recognize the concerns, and a committee of parents, teachers and principals has been in place since last spring to try to make the transition easier.

"This will be one of the most difficult changes in the school system in the 22 years I've been here," said Dave Bruzga, chairman of the transition committee and future principal of the new Long Reach High School. "But I think we will be able to address a lot of the concerns of the students and help make the redistricting as smooth as possible."

Even so, this year isn't expected to mark the end of redistricting.

Minor adjustments are expected to be made over the next five years to spread enrollment evenly across the high schools. For example, more neighborhoods in the northwestern area of the county are likely to be redistricted in future from Glenelg High to the county's other high schools as the population of western Howard County increases.

High schools aren't the only boundary lines expected to be adjusted this year.

A new elementary school on Ilchester Road in Ellicott City is scheduled to open next fall, and the school system plans to redistrict Deep Run, Elkridge, Rockburn, Waterloo and Worthington elementary schools to distribute enrollment across the six schools.

Redistricting Calendar

Here's the tentative schedule of meetings for the Howard County school system's public process of adjusting boundary lines:

* Regional meetings on redistricting alternatives:

1. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., Centennial High School. The meeting will focus on schools in the northern and western areas of the county.

2. Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Hammond High School. The meeting will focus on schools in the northeastern and southeastern areas of the county, as well as Columbia.

* Presentation of proposed boundary line adjustments: Nov. 21, 7:30 p.m., Department of Education headquarters on Route 108.

* Board of Education work session on redistricting: Jan. 3, 7:30 p.m., Department of Education.

* Public hearings on proposed redistricting: 1. Jan. 9, 7:30 p.m., Department of Education.

2. Jan. 10, 7:30 p.m., Department of Education.

* Board of Education work session on redistricting: Jan. 16, 7:30 p.m., Department of Education.

* Board of Education decision on redistricting: Jan. 25, 7:30 p.m., Department of Education.

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