Baltimore County had a chance to spread diversity among schools. They missed it.

Vocal opposition from Carroll Manor elementary parents, and map options that barely moved the needle, kept school district diversity at status quo.

Published 4/10/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT

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When parents of Carroll Manor Elementary School learned their kids could be redistricted to a different middle school — one they said would split up their community in northeastern Baltimore County — they took action.

They organized and created a website, shirts and signs to make clear that sending their children to Pine Grove Middle School in Carney was a nonstarter. They wanted their children to go to middle school with students from Jacksonville Elementary, feeding into Cockeysville or Ridgely middle. Theirs were the dominant voices in the room during redistricting meetings, and their community had the most participation in a public-input survey.

For Carroll Manor parents, increasing school diversity was not a concern.

For Baltimore County Public Schools, on the other hand, it was supposed to be. A system policy says reflecting the region’s diversity should be a primary consideration in changing school boundaries.

But in the end, Carroll Manor parents got what they wanted, and the new school boundaries do nothing to spread socioeconomic diversity, essentially keeping the demographics unchanged. .

‘Is that what diversity means?’

As Baltimore County schools prepared to open an expansion of Pine Grove Middle and a new middle school in Rosedale, it put the task of choosing school boundaries in the community’s hands. The system contracted with Cropper GIS, a facility planning consulting firm, who created several map options.

Parents, teachers and principals of the 11 impacted middle schools were selected to be on a 42-person committee that spent three months gathering community feedback before selecting a final map. The board will vote on it in May.

Guiding them were two primary directives: the efficient use of school capacity and maintaining or increasing the diversity of each school to reflect the diversity of the region and school system. Considerations like maintaining the continuity of neighborhoods and minimizing the number of times students are reassigned are secondary, according to system policy.

The selected boundary map at least temporarily relieves overcrowding at several of the middle schools and keeps Carroll Manor and Jacksonville elementary students together, with all slated to attend Cockeysville Middle.

Matthew Cropper, president of the contractor, said diversity was taken into account along with other variables, which sometimes conflict with one another.

“The best plan would be one that adheres to criteria, considerations as a whole as best as possible,” Cropper said. “The committee did do a very good job addressing and adhering to all of these factors including maintaining or increasing diversity.”

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But Rick Martell of Glen Arm, a parent of a Pine Grove student, said it didn’t look like race or socioeconomic status “was taken into consideration at all” by the committee.

White students make up 86% of the Carroll Manor population and low income kids are, at most, 5%. The demographics are nearly identical at Jacksonville. Over at Cockeysville Middle, 41% are white are 42% are low income. White students are 59% of Ridgley Middle’s population, where a portion of Carroll Manor students transition to, and 21% are low income.

In a map option Martell favored, Carroll Manor students would attend Pine Grove Middle instead of Cockeysville. A little more than half of the students at Pine Grove qualify for free and reduced meals, and 42% are Black. Had that map been selected, the percentage of low-income students at the middle school would have dropped from 56% to 44%.

If it was picked, Pine Grove would have inherited “a very dedicated bunch of parents,” Martell said before the committee voted. “All Carroll Manor students will stay together and not split up. And on top of that, most students will actually be closer to Pine Grove Middle School than Cockeysville where most attend.”

But the Carroll Manor group didn’t want to go to Pine Grove. It’s not part of their community, said Elisabeth McCollum, a Carroll Manor parent and the group’s publicist. Parents don’t work there, kids don’t play over there, and it’s not where they live their lives, she added. It’s all explained on their website, stopthesplitbcps.com.

Martell said he doesn’t understand why the Carroll Manor group seems “somehow inseparable with their neighbors to the west in Jacksonville and have nothing to do with their neighbors to the south in Glen Arm and Parkville.”

He said the kids where he lives also participate with the Carroll Manor community in extracurriculars. In a letter to the editor, he wrote that it was “disheartening to see members of our community going to such lengths to ensure that their children not be exposed to peers of a lower tax bracket.”

McCollum knows some form of diversity could be increased if Carroll Manor kids went to Pine Grove, but she isn’t sure if that’s “a good or bad thing.” Greater diversity could affect school ratings, for instance. Carroll Manor and Jacksonville have five stars on the Maryland School Report Card, the highest a school can achieve in the state’s rating system. Pine Grove Middle has three and so does Cockeysville.

If Carroll Manor kids were to attend Pine Grove, “it becomes more white than Black, but is that what diversity means?” McCollum asked.

She said she doesn’t know how the school system defines diversity. It’s not spelled out in the boundary study policy. She doesn’t want to guess, and she doesn’t want to make the process about race.

“To be honest, I have been counseling our group not to discuss diversity,” McCollum said.

Beyond neighborhood boundaries

The system’s equity policy doesn’t define “diversity,” either, but does describe “social identifiers” as demographic factors that include age, color, family structure, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status.

“The school system prioritizes educational equity by recognizing and removing institutional barriers and ensuring that social identifiers are not obstacles,” the policy reads.

Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, said more diverse schools are better for students. It gives them “the experience to learn from people who are coming from different backgrounds,” she said. It expands their worldviews, she added, helps their critical thinking and prepares them for the real world.

Research shows students in racially and socioeconomically diverse schools tend to achieve higher test scores and are more likely to go to college. Those schools also break down racial achievement gaps.

Keeping kids together comes up a lot as an argument against school integration, according to Potter. In Baltimore County, it was a point of contention in a 2017 boundary study involving Orems Elementary School in Middle River, when parents pushed to avoid a community divide.

There is research that says there are benefits in student continuity, Potter said, but that’s addressing kids switching schools every year, which wasn’t on the table in Baltimore County.

What district leaders “need to be pushing is how can we think bigger than just those neighborhood boundaries,” Potter said, because the boundaries were historically designed “to create that separation” of race and class.

“The reality is there are a lot of different housing policies, transportation, infrastructure policies in place over the years” whose effects can still be seen today.

Prioritizing integration has been done before. Potter points to Dallas, Texas where, like Baltimore County, there’s a diverse range of races and income levels. In 2014, Dallas Independent School District created “choice schools.” It’s similar to magnet schools but without the academic-based admissions, and students from across the district can attend.

To enroll in the choice schools, the system broke the city into blocks of population groups based on four factors: median household income, parents’ level of education, single parent status and home ownership. Block one represented the wealthiest citizens and block four represented the quarter that’s the most impoverished. They pick a group of children from each block to attend the schools.

No options that would move the needle

Robin Campbell, a Ridgley Middle parent and a member of the committee that selected the new school boundary map, said he thinks committee members were mindful of diversity, but “I did not see any options that would significantly move the needle one way or the other.”

The option that would have shifted school demographics the most wouldn’t have made a meaningful difference, Campbell and Martell, the Pine Grove parent, said.

In a survey conducted in mid-March that asked the community what options they preferred and why, more than 70% wanted a map labeled option A. The main reason they liked it, the survey showed, was because it maintained neighborhood continuity. It would send all of Carroll Manor to Cockeysville Middle.

Of the 2,737 who participated, a quarter lived in the Ridgley Middle School zone, 21% lived near Cockeysville Middle, 17% lived near Perry Hall Middle and another 17% lived by Dumbarton Middle. Participation was slim among the other schools.

Campbell noted that the community living near Stemmers Run in Essex had only 17 people participate in the survey. Meanwhile, almost half of the respondents were from parents who lived near Cockeysville and Ridgely Middle schools.

“I don’t know how effective Baltimore County Public Schools was at reaching out to some of the school communities that are disproportionately poor and people of color,” he said. “To some extent, it raises the question how serious BCPS is in input.”

Cropper said he believes the system did a good job letting the community know about the study and noted that the survey showed parents from each school participated.

Based on the results, Cropper made a new map, option E, that’s essentially option A but with a few minor tweaks. It was introduced at the committee’s last meeting on March 29, and the committee voted to bring it to the board.

Potter said it matters who’s participating in these studies.

“If we think that students deserve access to quality education regardless of their family’s income, we shouldn’t let those types of neighborhoods be the deciding factor,” she said.