What’s going on?
Right now, most people are discussing Superintendent Dr. Martirano’s recommendation for redistricting that he presented on August 22, 2019. If passed by the school board, it would go into effect next school year 2020-2021. That recommendation may not become reality, though: it is up to the Howard County Board of Education to pass the final redistricting plan.Because the Board of Education initiated the process of redistricting review by unanimous vote on January 24, 2019, some redistricting is likely. Additionally, the Howard County Council introduced a resolution calling upon HCPSS to economically integrate schools. However, the resolution itself does not have a direct effect on the policy.
Why is the redistricting happening?
Dr. Martirano’s three priorities for the redistricting plans are capacity utilization, preparing for building a new high school, and balancing FARMS levels. Let’s go through those one by one.
According to Dr. Martirano’s presentation to the Board of Education, 32 HCPSS schools, or 42% of all schools, are projected to be outside of their target capacity for the 2020-2021 school year. In other words, if no redistricting plan is passed, 42% of schools will be below 90% or above 110% capacity next school year. Glenelg High School has the lowest projected utilization at 82%, while Howard High School has the highest projected utilization at 136%. Clearly this disparity is a problem. “If we continue to delay addressing this issue, continued growth patterns will only exacerbate this inequality, and deepen the strain on resources at even more of our schools,” said Dr. Martirano in his presentation to the Board of Education.
Under Dr. Martirano’s current redistricting plan, Atholton would have the lowest capacity utilization of all high schools at 96%, and while Howard High School would still hold the highest capacity utilization, it would drop from 136% to 119%. Capacity utilization would improve for elementary and middle schools as well.
Planning for a new High School:
Another main factor in this redistricting plan is to plan for the opening of a 13th Howard County High School to minimize the number of students who would have to change schools more than once.
Balancing FARMS levels:
Students who qualify for the federal FARMS (Free and Reduced Meals) program makeup drastically different percentages of the student body–from a high of 68% at Stevens Forest Elementary School to a low of less than 5% at multiple schools. The biggest changes in FARMS percentages would be in Elementary and Middle Schools, but high schools would also be impacted. The biggest high school differences would be Wilde Lake decreasing from a FARMS percentage of 46% to a percentage of 38%, and Atholton increasing from a percentage of 10% to 25%.
Why does balancing FARMS percentages matter?
“This is the first time that a redistricting plan considered economic balance,” said Dr. Richard Kohn, a professor at the University of Maryland, who spoke at the Equity in Redistricting Forum hosted by Youth in Conversation, adding “previous plans actually increased segregation by income.”
When presenting his plan, Dr. Martirano elaborated on the importance of increasing economic balance. “Substantial research shows that socio-economic and cultural diversity in the classroom can provide all students with a range of benefits…these benefits impact all students, not only those who are more disadvantaged,” he said. He specifically mentioned how diverse classrooms have been shown to improve creativity, motivation, deeper learning, critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and leadership skills, as well as preparing students “to succeed in a global environment,” adding, “we need to give students a chance to grow up with one another.”
If Dr. Martirano’s plan is passed, who would move?
Almost 1 in 7, or 2,851 total HCPSS high school students are slated to change schools in the current plan. For Atholton, the proposed plan would move 513 students to River Hill High School and 97 students to Wilde Lake High School,meaning that around 2/5ths of current Atholton Students would change schools. In return, Atholton would receive 215 students from Hammond High School and 256 students from Oakland Mills High School. You can find out if you would be affected by the proposed plan by going to https://www.hcpss.org/school-planning/boundary-review/. Notably, rising seniors are exempt from redistricting, and the Board of Education has the option to vote to include rising juniors, eighth graders, and/or fifth graders in that exception–the main drawback to this approach is the extra transportation costs.
Why are people opposing the redistricting plan?
There has been a lot of pushback from the community in response to the proposed plan, notably including a death threat aimed at Dr. Martirano, a protest on September 14th at the Columbia Mall, and an influx of impassioned oral and written testimony aimed at both the Board of Education and the County Council. The opposing testimonies range from blatantly bigoted to more logical; among the arguments are how the plan might divide neighborhood communities, exacerbate commute times, and lessen participation in after-school activities.
Essentially, parents are worried that the redistricting might distress their children if they have to find new friends, that the value of their houses might go down, or that their child might be getting a lesser-quality education. “We need to have an ongoing discussion on stigma associated with race and class. A lot of the anger and fear associated with redistricting is caused by lack of cultural awareness and understanding,” said Dr. Kohn.
Why are people supporting the proposed plan?
Allison Allston, Howard County Student Member of the Board (SMOB), said she thinks that the redistricting plan is “a great way to reinforce that equity that we always talk about.” And while worrying about the transition between schools is understandable, questioning the quality of education at a Howard County school is misguided. “For any community member to advance a narrative that any of our schools are less desirable than others; this is complete mythology,” said Dr. Martirano during his presentation to the Board of Education. Sam Sapp, a senior at Wilde Lake High School who counter protested at the Columbia Mall in support of the redistricting plan, agreed. Wilde Lake has “the best high school band program in the state, we have a professional class amphitheater, we have all this stuff that any high school would beg to have. And I don’t understand why they can’t just see that,” he said. Written testimonies are open until November 19th and the Board of Education’s final decision is scheduled to be released on Thursday, November 21st. Until then, in the words of Alston, “remember that all of our schools are great.”