School flight triggers call for meeting; Robey, 3 on council seek improvements, public opinions; Meeting set for Oct. 18; Officials say aim is to maintain equal education


Responding to the flight of parents from schools with image problems, Howard County political leaders are planning an unusual public meeting as a first step toward ending the worrisome trend.

Although county school officials say they are addressing the issue, County Executive James N. Robey and three County Council members aren't satisfied. They want to hear from the public -- especially those with children in shunned schools -- to find new solutions.

"We're going to come together and determine what to do about underachieving schools, the older schools," said Robey, who is organizing the Oct. 18 meeting with the council members. "Our schools have to be equal. All kids in Howard deserve the same quality education, and it shouldn't be available only to those who live in the more affluent areas that have the new schools."

The county can't afford to close old schools and build new ones to replace them, Robey said, noting that Wilde Lake High, Columbia's oldest high school, was able to bounce back from a bad image.

"Even if it's only perception, we've got to deal with perception," he said, mentioning the parents in the Clemens Crossing community in Columbia who have hired a bus to transport their children this year to the new Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton rather than have them go to Wilde Lake Middle. The parents banded together to successfully lobby school officials for permission to transfer dozens of their children. They said Wilde Lake is troubled academically and blamed school system administrators for problems they said can't be fixed in time to benefit their children.

The transfers sparked debate in the community and spotlighted a trend toward declining white enrollment and increased concentrations of minority and lower-income students in several schools in older Columbia neighborhoods. The Clemens Crossing students are nearly all white; Wilde Lake is more racially and economically diverse than Lime Kiln.

While the agenda for the meeting -- at 6 p.m. in the county's George Howard building in Ellicott City -- isn't set, Robey, a Democrat, hopes it will generate ideas for school officials to consider.

County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a Laurel-Savage Democrat, stressed the importance of equalizing quality among schools.

"Every child should be leaving second and third grade reading at grade level," he said. "They're not. We've got a County Council right now that feels it's incredibly important."

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat who has pushed school officials for years on the issue, said, "There needs to be a more aggressive approach."

The meeting, he said, will be the first of several to "lay out the parameters of the challenge. Basically, we're going to work with residents, Realtors, advocates, the Rouse Co., anybody who wants to come."

Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, is the other sponsor of the meeting.

Redistricting postponed

As they begin to find new ways to improve schools, Howard officials are also trying to work on a related problem: relieving school crowding in fast-developing parts of the county outside Columbia.

Political leaders were upset when school officials recently announced they were postponing a long-predicted general redrawing of school district lines, deciding instead to build a new elementary school in booming Ellicott City and nine additions to schools elsewhere in the county. A few hundred students may still have to be redistricted until the buildings are ready, school officials say. Reducing class sizes in first and second grades eliminated extra classroom space in underused schools, mostly in Columbia, school officials said.

The decision to delay countywide redistricting awaits further action by the school board and county government. It's entwined in the issue of the school system's $51 million capital budget -- which Robey says is too much -- and is being watched closely by parents who don't want their children sent to less crowded schools, in Columbia and elsewhere, that they view as inadequate.

Surprised by the reversal on redistricting and the size of the capital budget, Robey withdrew a council bill Friday to tighten controls on development around crowded schools. He called for a reconvening of a citizens committee to re-examine enrollment data based on the school system's new plans.

The key part of the bill would have halted plans for new residential development around schools judged 115 percent of capacity instead of the current 120 percent. Several County Council members, including Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon, want the threshold lowered to 110 percent. The lower the level gets, however, the more school construction would be needed to avoid the building ban.

Improvements made

Stephen C. Bounds, vice chairman of the school board, said the board and School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey are doing everything they can to address the performance gap between good and poor students and to strengthen the image of older schools.

"There's a tremendous amount going on to target performance at focus schools," he said, referring to 17 county schools receiving extra attention and resources because of lower performance. Those 17, for example, are the first to reduce class size in first grade from 25 to 19 children to boost reading skills.

"We're not satisfied with anything less than the highest performance at any of our schools," Bounds said, adding that several new reading initiatives are beginning to show results but need more time to work. "Parent-teacher associations at focus schools tell us they're thrilled with what's going on at their schools."

The problem at Wilde Lake Middle, Bounds said, was more perception than reality. He said that often those perceptions originate with parents who are worried about their children being redistricted and criticize a school that they were going to move to as a tactic to prevent the change.

The board, he said, is ready any time to tell council members and Robey about their efforts.

"If they are really concerned about these issues, why aren't they asking us?" Bounds said, noting that "we stand ready to communicate to them."

Pub Date: 10/03/99

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