IN PUBLIC EDUCATION, as in politics, perception can be reality.
Over several years, changes in the Wilde Lake neighborhood and missteps by the Howard County public schools, led some parents to conclude that their children would be better served at Lime Kiln Middle, a bright new building six miles away.
The parents ponied up about $40,000 to hire two buses, generating dramatic headlines and a story about "white flight" from Wilde Lake Middle, where changing demographics, a sagging physical plant and a history of administrative instability created a perception of serious problems.
It's a miseleading perception, says Howard County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.
Statewide testing results gave Wilde Lake the eighth-best results among the county's 16 middle schools. No record exists of unsafe or violent conditions, he said. The complex is 25 years old, but recently refurbished.
Most important, a new principal with vision and determination, Brenda Thomas, was ready to get Wilde Lake back on track. Then came the stories about parents busing their childen to Lime Kiln.
'A bus for free'
Given the chance, Dr. Hickey says he would have made a deal with these parents.
"I would have given them a bus for free if they had given Brenda a year's time to show improvement," he said.
Even now, the superintendent is betting parents will discover that Wilde Lake has many virtues. He predicts some of the disaffected parents will return.
"People are uneasy about change so they try to, I guess, escape the concerns they have. But they will have a hard time saying that Wilde Lake's performance has been so abysmal that they had to get out.
"They're actually not saying Wilde Lake Middle is beyond saving. They're saying it's beyond saving in the time my child will be there," he said.
But they could find they were wrong -- and decide it's easier for them and for their children to stay in their neighborhood -- if Ms. Thomas is as successful as the superintendent predicts she will be.
In an interview last week, Dr. Hickey took his share of the blame for the task she faces.
"Parents didn't get the response they should have when they complained," he said. "I don't want to be critical of the former leadership there, but the fact that I changed it speaks clearly. It was time for a change.
'We made mistakes'
"We made mistakes. The turnover of principals and the number of staff we allowed to leave was clearly the wrong judgement. That did hurt the school. That was the biggest destabilizing thing. It helped to create the poor perception."
Test scores dropped, he readily acknowledged, during the years of unstable leadership. That perception is real, he said -- but the potential for improvement remains strong in his mind.
Dr. Hickey says the problems of Wilde Lake Middle and of some other older schools in Howard County can be attributed to changing neighborhood composition. More low-to-moderate income residents are moving into older neighborhoods where the houses are older and less expensive -- and where policies followed by county officials have resulted in higher concentrations of poor and minority families.
Virtually no provision has been made, on the other hand, for lower-income housing in the newer, west Columbia villages of River Hill and King's Contrivance.
The result is a potential for severe polarization with enclaves of the wealthy in the county's western neighborhoods and of poorer households in Columbia.
In the past, Dr. Hickey said, school authorities stayed out of zoning and development issues -- adopting "the position of taking no position."
In recent years, he said, that approach has begun to change.
More frank and full exchanges of views between County Council and school board members -- with more in the works -- will at least make clear the impact of policies.
Moreover, in a short time, the response of parents in the Wilde Lake neighborhood who transferred their children to Lime Kiln may not be available to others. Many county schools already are closed to transfers; they have room for neighborhood children only.
The answer ultimately is better coordination among policy makers, better and more stable leadership in the schools, and parents who recognize they can help to change perceptions by helping new, committed leaders.
Many Columbia parents have already adopted that approach.
"The key to a school doing well is having a leader with vision and the ability to sell that vision to people so he or she can enlist them to make a change," Dr. Hickey said.
Politics, history, economics, race-based fears and the determination of parents to do right by their children are all a part of the equation.
"It's a complex issue, but people look for a simple answer," the school superintendent said. "They're fooling themselves."
C. Fraser Smith is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.