Analysis: Moving students around in Howard County is not enough to achieve equity

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Photo by Audio-luci.it with Flickr Creative Commons License

This column is running in the November issue of The Business Monthly serving Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

By Len Lazarick

Len@MarylandReporter.com

When we bought our house in Columbia’s Owen Brown Village in 1986, the owners were selling because they wanted to move into a different – and presumably better – high school district.

There is a long history in Howard County of people choosing to live based on which schools their children will attend. Some families make sacrifices to live in the “right” neighborhood, or work extra jobs just to live somewhere in expensive Howard County that they can afford – like the young, single-mom receptionist I met recently who moved to Columbia from Baltimore to get her daughter in a Howard County school.

There is wide agreement among county officials, business leaders and ordinary citizens that Howard County public schools are perhaps its strongest social asset. They deserve and get broad public support.

These are among the reasons that the proposal by school Superintendent Michael Martirano to move 7,400 kids – over 12% of the system’s 58,000 students – has stirred such controversy.

Most people understand that some schools are crowded and overcapacity. They have more students than they are designed to handle, and they have those not-so-temporary learning shacks out back.

Other schools are under-capacity, with room to take on more students.

Overcrowding not the only reason 

What has raised the most ire is that overcrowding is not the sole reason Martirano is proposing to bus children around. He told the community he wanted to “advance equity by addressing the distribution of students participating in the Free and Reduced-price Meals (FARM) program across schools” and get ready for the 13th high school in Jessup.

Lower income students are concentrated in 13 elementary schools primarily in Columbia and the Route 1 corridor. Martirano wants to spread them around.

This socioeconomic concentration has been repeatedly referred to as “segregation,” even by members of the County Council who chose to turn up the political heat on Martirano even before he released his explosive proposal.

“Segregation” is a loaded word evoking racism and the violation of civil rights, a time when there were white schools and “colored” schools, separate and unequal, as they were in Howard County up until 1964 when they were fully desegregated.

Why the concentration

Why are lower-income students concentrated in these schools?

That’s where their parents can afford to live. Some of the blame goes to Jim Rouse, Columbia’s visionary developer who pledged a fully integrated community in the 1960s when that was not the norm in Maryland.

In Rouse’s original plan, each of Columbia’s 10 villages had three or four neighborhoods, and every neighborhood had an elementary school that most children could walk to. In the center of the village, there was to be a middle school and high school, and many students could walk to those too. Around this village center, which included shops and religious facilities, were apartments and townhouses that were reasonably priced. The single-family homes were at the outer edges of the village. Schools were a basic building block of community.

Rouse’s plan for schools worked for a few years, but the school board didn’t get with the program. Not every neighborhood got a school, not every village got a high school.

In Columbia’s first four villages – Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills, Harper’s Choice and Long Reach – there were also clusters of subsidized housing supported with federal funding that existed through the 1970s. Twenty years later, social scientists and housing experts would come to see this clustering as a bad idea because of the way it concentrated the poor.

Putting together apartments, affordable townhouses and subsidized housing, along with the later Section 8 vouchers produces neighborhoods where lower-earning families can afford to live. Because they are renters, they also tend to be more transient, further undermining their academic performance. Similar clusters exist in the Route 1 corridor.

The reality is that you cannot build a cheap old house or apartment. Getting some moderately affordable apartments in the new flats rising in the Merriweather District of Columbia’s downtown took a conscientious struggle.

Columbia was meant to be Howard County’s urban core. But as the years went by, the county government let suburban sprawl spread outside Columbia. There was little of Rouse’s commitment to affordable housing, nor support for it from elected officials, except for some lip service.

Kirwan commission tackles poverty   

Faced with these concentrations of lower-income students – mostly African American and Hispanic — what do you do about it?

This was one of the core topics discussed at length by the Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. Howard County’s problem with this is relatively minor compared to the disparities in Baltimore and Prince George’s County.

“The Commission has come to an inescapable conclusion: substantial and sustained improvement in Maryland’s educational performance requires targeted attention to its lowest performing schools and an integrated set of reforms that will enable its most challenged students to achieve their true potential,” says its report. “The instructional system must be designed to quickly identify students who are falling behind grade level and provide the appropriate, individualized instruction and supports needed to get the student back on track for college and career readiness.”

The commission did find that when low-income students make up over half the school, that is bad for all the students there. But in general, the commission is recommending plowing more resources into these schools. This includes:

  • in the short term, providing substantial additional resources for Transitional Supplemental Instruction, to address the needs of students in kindergarten through third grade who are not on track;
  • phasing in high-quality, full-day prekindergarten at no cost to three- and four-year-olds from low-income families (and on a sliding scale for four-year-olds from higher income families) to enable children from economically challenging circumstances to begin kindergarten ready to learn like their peers from higher income families;
  • increasing teacher preparation requirements so that teachers are adequately prepared to identify students who are falling behind and to design instructional supports to get them back on track;
  • redesigning the school day so that teachers have the time to diagnose and deliver individualized supports to students who need them;
  • implementing poverty grants to provide a community school coordinator and health services practitioner for every school with 55% or more of its students from low-income families and up to an additional $3,265 per low-income student to provide support for all students in the school.

“This last recommendation acknowledges that many economically disadvantaged students are not receiving the critical social services, health care, behavioral/mental health, nutritional, and other needs that students from more affluent families receive as a matter of course,” says the commission report.

These expensive recommendations have not been enacted or funded. These are the kind of resources and support that Martirano needs to make his proposal achieve the equity he espouses. Trading students between schools is simply not enough.