Baltimore County school system starts new process for Johnnycake Elementary overcrowding relief

About seven months after announcing a plan to parents at Johnnycake Elementary School to reduce overcrowding at the aging building, Baltimore County Public Schools has set in motion a new, largely different plan.

Unlike an earlier proposal that would have shifted boundaries of about a half-dozen schools, including Johnnycake, when a new Chadwick Elementary School in Woodlawn opens in 2020, the new plan, detailed in a letter to parents dated Nov. 5, calls for boundary changes between Johnnycake Elementary School and Edmondson Heights Elementary School. Some parents and officials said they were surprised by the surfacing of a new plan.

Starting January 2019, BCPS will be conducting a school capacity relief study that will likely result in boundary changes between two sets of elementary schools: Johnnycake and Edmondson Heights, and Dogwood and Featherbed Lane.

“Our enrollment in this area has gone up a little bit, and it makes it likely that Chadwick will be unable to provide relief to its neighbors,” said Russell Brown, BCPS’ chief accountability officer. “Rather than just scrap the entire process, we looked and said, ‘Oh, there’s still room to potentially relieve some overcrowding by looking at the relationship between these schools.’”

In late April, County Councilman Tom Quirk told a group of Johnnycake parents at a fundraiser that a plan was in the pipeline to reduce crowding at Johnnycake, which was 168 students over-capacity during the 2017-2018 school year.

Quirk had said he was working with Brown and Nicholas Stewart, vice chair of the Board of Education, to gain an understanding of the strategy. Quirk said it would likely involve boundary changes, some programmatic changes and the construction of a new Chadwick Elementary School in Woodlawn.

The reasoning behind the plan was that the new Chadwick Elementary School would have excess seating, so Chadwick and its adjoining schools — including Johnnycake — could go through a boundary change process to relieve capacity at all overcrowded elementaries in the region.

Quirk said he had not yet heard much of the new plan, and that “nobody told me that changed.” He said communication surrounding crowding at Johnnycake has been “lacking.”

Rachel Smith, president of Johnnycake’s PTA, said it was “a little bit frustrating” to switch from a plan that involved a new Chadwick and other schools to a plan that involves just two schools.

“Up until this point and for the last year, the only thing we have been told was Chadwick is a part of our answer,” Smith said. “It was just shocking [to hear the new plan], I guess, because it’s not what we had been told.”

The new plan

The new BCPS plan would shift some students out of programs at Johnnycake Elementary School, opening up classrooms, and would move the boundaries between Johnnycake Elementary and Edmondson Heights Elementary as a way to lower enrollment at Johnnycake without overwhelming capacity at Edmondson Heights.

Chadwick Elementary, Brown explained, is projected to hit capacity sooner than originally expected.

During the 2017-2018 school year, Chadwick Elementary had 649 students, with a capacity of 408 students. The newly constructed Chadwick Elementary, slated to open during the fall 2020 term, will have a capacity of about 700.

“It did not make sense to bring all the schools to the table if it was not realistic that they were going to be able to access seats at Chadwick,” Brown said.

Unlike Johnnycake, Edmondson Heights was under-capacity during the last school year, so BCPS anticipates being able to move some students from Johnnycake to Edmondson Heights.

Additionally, some programs, like special education classes, have started to shift around the county, Brown said. In many cases, the county is working to move as many special education students as close to their homes as possible.

Special education classrooms in Baltimore County have a lower capacity than do standard instruction classrooms. So, a classroom that was once a special education classroom can add new capacity to a school when that classroom is converted to standard instruction, Brown said.

BCPS said a boundary study committee will be formed this month, and then meet five times between January and April 2019. The first meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 9 at 6 p.m. in the Woodlawn High School cafeteria, and meetings are open to the public.

During the same time frame, a committee will consider boundary changes between Dogwood Elementary and Featherbed Lane Elementary.

In May and June, the school board will consider the committees’ recommendations on boundary changes.

Smith said the letter to parents was the first time she or anyone else in the PTA had heard about the changing plans. As of this week, she said, “virtually no information has been shared with us.”

Since Edmondson Heights was about 40 students under capacity last year, Smith said, she estimated about that many students would be redistricted to Edmondson Heights under the plan.

She said that’s “not really an answer” to the problems Johnnycake faces, including aging and damaged facilities and overcrowding. Moving two classrooms’ worth of students to a new school would be “disruptive to families’ lives,” she said.Lisa Mack, the incoming board of education member for District 1, where Johnnycake is located, said she had to learn more about the situation before commenting on it.

Stewart, the outgoing school board member for the district, said the change of plans could prove a positive for the community. He said before the state will allocate funds to assist with new school construction, it likes to see that redistricting was attempted as a strategy to reduce crowding.

“Our options are getting worse and narrower,” Stewart said. “As a result, we need a much more substantial solution.”

Parents and community activists have long called for a new school at Johnnycake, which was criticized in a 2014 facilities assessment for, among other issues, low ceilings, asbestos, worn finishes and modular classrooms in poor condition.

cboteler@baltsun.com

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