Families to move, but kids can stay in their old school


Single parents Eva Wrightson and Alicia Eckert - both residents of the soon-to-be-demolished Villages of Tall Trees in eastern Baltimore County - don't know where they'll live come September, but they know which elementary school their children will attend:

Mars Estates Elementary School.

To avoid an exodus of nearly 200 pupils from Mars Estates, Baltimore County school officials have presented a plan to bus pupils from their new homes near other schools to the Essex-Middle River campus.

"What we are trying to do is bring as much continuity and consistency as possible," said Ann Glazer, superintendent of schools in southeast neighborhoods, who sent a letter explaining the bus plan to parents recently.

Schools Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione has approved the plan, even though it is a stopgap measure at best.

Baltimore County is buying property in Tall Trees and plans to demolish apartment buildings there to make way for a park as part of the redevelopment of the Essex-Middle River area.

Pupils who reside at Tall Trees account for about one-third of the 600 children who attend Mars Estates, a school with a reputation for impressive standardized test scores despite the many social ills that vex the community it serves.

Principal Roger G. Proudfoot wonders what will become of his school after Tall Trees closes.

He doesn't want to see his teachers sever bonds with their pupils. He worries that he could lose some federal funding, too, money that is central to the education mission at Mars Estates.

About 460 pupils qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches, a federal program to help children from low-income homes. As a result, Mars Estates receives about $324,000 a year from the federal government. Proudfoot has used the money to hire two teachers, a part-time nurse, an instructional assistant and 13 parent helpers.

Should Mars Estates lose a great number of pupils - nearly 200 pupils leave each year, but are replaced by newcomers - it's uncertain how the loss of federal aid could be made up, he said.

Planning for the coming exodus is difficult.

Many of the people who live in Tall Trees have not made definite moving plans. Two mothers with children at Mars Estates said they are afraid to leave the complex for fear they won't get enough aid to make a new start.

Often, school administrators are the last to know about a pupil's change of address.

"Most parents won't share that kind of information, in terms of where they are moving, until they have already done it," said Proudfoot.

County officials predict that many Tall Trees residents will relocate to apartment communities within the enrollment districts of Deep Creek and Sandalwood elementary schools - campuses at or over capacity.

"So that we don't aggravate existing conditions at Deep Creek and Sandalwood, we will bus students from their new homes near those schools back to Mars Estates," said Glazer.

The busing plan has won favor among parents who don't want their children to move to new schools. They like what they've seen at Mars Estates, they said.

"I want to keep my son in Mars Estates because I used to go there myself, and it is a wonderful school," said Wrightson, 21. "There are wonderful teachers there."

Some parents worry whether their children, most of whom walk to school now, will be safe.

"I'd prefer it if my son didn't have to ride the bus, but then, I'd prefer not to move," said Eckert, 27, who worries that other children will tease her son if he rides a bus. It happened once before, she said.

Eckert, who uses an electric wheelchair, also worries that she won't be able to get her son, Steven, 6, to the bus stop. She often accompanies him to Mars Estates, which is across the street from Tall Trees. The trip takes about a minute, she said.

Bus service may not be the final solution for balancing the enrollment at Mars Estates, said Glazer, but it will do for now.

"We developed this plan because we knew we had to do something," she said. "But we will constantly monitor the situation at Mars Estates to see about modifications."

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