Shunning of schools by parents prompts call for public meeting; Howard officials seek to improve older facilities


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.

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. 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.

Pub Date: 10/03/99

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