Columbia parents vote with their bus; Believing older schools are inferior, they send children to newer one


The weekday morning scene in Columbia's Clemens Crossing neighborhood is a familiar one: a dozen children gathered on a corner, waiting for their yellow school bus.

But the bus ride is extraordinary.

This year, neighborhood parents are sending these children -- and dozens more -- to a mostly white school in rural Fulton, away from the racially and economically diverse Columbia middle schools.

And the parents are picking up the tab, pooling $37,800 a year for buses to make the six-mile run to Lime Kiln Middle School.

This journey out of Columbia is both a story of parents doing what they believe is academically best for their children and a case study in suburban white flight.

It is also a demonstration, some say, of how open enrollment policy can exacerbate a racial and economic imbalance in Howard's highly regarded school system.

"The people running away from a particular school, they generally have the resources," said Columbia Council member Earl Jones.

"We know what happens is invariably the minorities are all crowded into one school."

The parents of these 63 children can be uncomfortable discussing the role they are playing in the transformation of Columbia schools.

Their chief concern when they banded together to change schools was not race, they say, but declining academic performance at the schools they were leaving behind.

"I felt guilty pulling out of there, but at the same time I think it was a really good thing because it sent a message that something has to change," said Patti Drazin, who sent her sixth-grade son to the new Fulton school, Lime Kiln Middle, after a disappointing visit last year to classes at Wilde Lake Middle School.

"It's a perfect example of a situation where people can be very innocently and sincerely trying to do what's best for their child and be conflicted as to whether they are a party to making things worse."

Drazin was part of a remarkable exodus from Wilde Lake, Columbia's oldest middle school.

Dozens of parents from her Hickory Ridge neighborhood, Clemens Crossing, organized last year to urge school officials to allow their children not to attend Wilde Lake, which had been "protected" from losing students for two years because it was already under capacity.

The parents' forceful lobbying persuaded the school board to lift that "protected" status, despite objections from the system's top redistricting official.

As a result, roughly 50 Clemens Crossing families ultimately enrolled their children at Lime Kiln instead of Wilde Lake this year, including some seventh- and eighth-graders who attended Wilde Lake last year.

Several more Clemens Crossing families chose Lime Kiln instead of Harper's Choice Middle School, another diverse Columbia school, for their children.

The parents hired two buses to take their children, and a few children from other Columbia neighborhoods, to Lime Kiln at $600 per child a year.

The families who are leaving behind such schools as Wilde Lake Middle make clear that race has nothing to do with their decisions. But regardless of the motivation, the Clemens Crossing movement provides a dramatic snapshot of the migration of white, affluent families from older Columbia schools in this decade.

Changes in enrollment

White enrollments at elementary schools in Columbia's oldest neighborhoods, for example, have dropped sharply in the past 10 years. During the same time, these same elementary schools have seen a near-doubling of African-American students. The number of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches has tripled.

The Columbia middle schools have seen similar changes.

Of all the county's middle schools, Wilde Lake had the highest percentage of students on free and reduced-price lunch plans during the 1997-1998 school year, nearly 24 percent. That figure had doubled in five years.

The school is also one of the county's most ethnically diverse. According to preliminary numbers from the school system, the population this year is 45 percent white, 43 percent black, 8 percent Asian and 2 percent Hispanic.

That reflects about a 10 percent drop in white students and a 10 percent increase in black enrollment since a year ago, when the school was 51.2 percent white, 39.6 percent black, 6.7 percent Asian, 2 percent Hispanic and 0.4 percent native American.

By contrast, Lime Kiln Middle is 85 percent white, 5 percent black, 6 percent Asian and 4 percent other minorities.

A number of Clemens Crossing parents believe that poverty has concentrated at schools such as Wilde Lake to the point that it hurts the academic environment.

Some of the parents advocated busing students from areas with low-income housing to newer schools outside of Columbia.

"It is unfortunate that all the students of Howard County cannot receive an equal education, but realistically this will never be the case unless massive redistricting spreading needy students to all schools occurs," wrote Sara Seifter, a Clemens Crossing parent, in a Jan. 9 letter to school board member Sandra French asking that her child be allowed to attend a school other than Wilde Lake.

But redistricting is the most controversial solution.

A less visible way to address parents' concerns, and one employed at times over the years by school officials, is to allow parents to move their children under "open enrollment." With open enrollment, parents can switch to any under-enrolled school, but they have to find their own transportation, which can be too onerous a burden for poor families.

During a routine quarterly meeting between school officials and members of the Howard County Council last week, Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray voiced worries about whether open enrollment plays a role in exacerbating socioeconomic imbalances between schools.

"That is a concern," Gray said in a later interview. "The open enrollment policy is one that I thought was supposed to be used in extraordinary circumstances."

In Clemens Crossing, some parents were convinced that the socioeconomic conditions at Wilde Lake did present "extraordinary circumstances." Any hint of problems at the school took on a magnified significance. A fight in the halls or an unruly child in a classroom became the seeds of more troubling rumors. Low test scores were met with alarm.

By last year, the neighborhood's push to leave Wilde Lake became so fierce that some Clemens Crossing parents with children at Wilde Lake grew uncomfortable, feeling adult peer pressure.

'A difficult situation'

"We had fliers posted on our mailboxes: Your house values are going down because your kids are going to Wilde Lake Middle," said Trish Mazzullo, a 44-year-old mother from Clemens Crossing who is sending her middle-schoolers to Wilde Lake.

She said the fliers were posted by zealous neighbors trying to rally support for redistricting or open enrollment. "I wasn't pleased. It's been a difficult situation, more so for the ones remaining."

Mazzullo said she has not succumbed to the "fear factor." Her eldest daughter enjoyed Wilde Lake, her eighth-grade daughter is happy there now, and her 11-year-old son is one of the few from last year's Clemens Crossing Elementary School fifth-grade glass to go to Wilde Lake this year.

"It's just kind of weird because everybody's talking about going to Lime Kiln and saying that Wilde Lake's going to be a stupid school," said Mazzullo's son, Sonny, taking a break from his computer game on an afternoon at home after school. "I just kind of roll my eyes."

School officials say the Clemens Crossing movement is just another example of what happens when parents feel their child is trapped in an inferior school. Though no one could remember an incident as dramatic, this is certainly not the first time a group of parents has fled a school they believe is struggling, officials say.

"There are always parents who feel like their child's needs are not being met at the school. Sometimes, those perceptions are erroneous," school board Chairman Karen B. Campbell said. "It comes with a buying into the image of the school instead of looking at what's happening for my student at this school."

Facts become irrelevant

"I think that a lot of times, people build up in their minds a rationale and nothing can dissuade them," said school board member Sandra H. French. "Sometimes the facts just can't defeat word of mouth. The facts no longer become relevant."

Even some parents acknowledged in letters to the school board that they were disturbed by their neighbors' mention of nonexistent gangs and other "inflammatory" rumors that were spread about Wilde Lake Middle School. However, the letters consistently expressed concern about such issues as academic performance and classroom control.

"If the test scores and quality of education at Wilde Lake were consistent with the high standards Clemens Crossing [Elementary] has maintained throughout the years, you would not hear such a hue and cry about the district lines," parents Susan Getz Kerbel and David Kerbel wrote in a Jan. 11 letter to Campbell.

"Please consider lifting the protected status so that we can continue to send our child to a high achieving public school with low teacher turnover, model classroom behavior and a strong administration."

Some parents, like Lester and Patti Drazin, visited Wilde Lake Middle last year with their fifth-grade children and sat in on classes. The Drazins didn't see discipline problems, but what they saw in class, particularly in a sixth-grade math class for gifted and talented students, disturbed them.

"The things they were doing, [my son] was hands-down blowing them away. My son couldn't believe it," Lester Drazin said.

"What I really saw was that the classroom, the educational process, and the level of the teaching was not going to make my son stretch. He was going to slack off."

Standardized testing was one rallying point for parents. Wilde Lake Middle's 1997 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program scores for eighth-graders were among the lowest in the county, with less than 47 percent of students achieving a satisfactory level or better.

The 1998 scores were much improved, with almost 57 percent scoring at least satisfactory, but parents weren't satisfied. The scores were better than many schools in neighboring counties, but they still lagged behind Howard's best middle schools, where close to 70 percent of students achieve satisfactory or better scores.

The school board decided the disgruntled parents should be able to take their children to another school, voting unanimously in April to lift Wilde Lake Middle's protected status and allow open enrollment.

Associate Superintendent Maurice Kalin, the top school districting official, warned that such a decision could drain Wilde Lake's enrollment and force redistricting, always a volatile process.

"It's going to be difficult to convince the population that you're bringing in [through redistricting] that they should come in," Kalin told the board. "Do you want to be in that position?"

School below capacity

Wilde Lake Middle's enrollment, already low last year, is indeed low again this year. The latest unofficial count this year was 457 students, slightly higher than last year's enrollment of 452 but still well percent below the capacity of 506.

Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and school board members say they don't believe open enrollment will lead to an irreversible decline at schools like Wilde Lake Middle. They have expressed great confidence in new Principal Brenda Thomas and a rejuvenated staff at Wilde Lake Middle School.

Hickey said he would have preferred keeping Wilde Lake Middle protected for one more year to "convince some of those people before they made the decision to leave." However, it might be just as well that they did leave, he said.

"They were not willing to give the new administration an opportunity to show them that it's going to be a very different school this year than perhaps it's been in the past," Hickey said.

"You don't need the naysayers, the ones that want out. People vote with their feet and they have the option to go somewhere else, so they do."

Campbell said, "As a board, the feeling that we have is that by the time this school year is over, the community will have a whole different attitude toward Wilde Lake Middle School.

"The flux of students leaving will not continue. That's really my sense of what's going on."

But parents like the Drazins said they aren't willing to wait.

"The vision was if we work real hard, we can get Wilde Lake to be a very good middle school in three or four or five years," Lester Drazin said.

"Well, my child will be out of there by then, so why should I impose the effort if it's not going to help my child? And that's a very disheartening thing to say, but the reality is most parents feel that way."

Pub Date: 9/14/99

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