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Published in Print: June 9, 2004, as Md. School-Merger Idea Fails; Offers Lesson in Change

Md. School-Merger Idea Fails; Offers Lesson in Change

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It seemed like an idea worth exploring when district leaders here first starting discussing it: Help students from a low-achieving elementary school by merging them with pupils from a high-achieving school just a few miles away.

Not long after that, however, the Frederick County, Md., school board cut off debate on the idea once parents at the high-achieving school angrily declared: No way!

Instead, students at South Frederick Elementary School will get mandatory extra instruction—not new classmates—to help them raise their test scores.

The short and intense debate in this traditionally rural but increasingly suburban county shows just how hard it may be for districts to try radical ideas to raise student achievement in compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. It also underscores the attachment families have to neighborhood schools and their willingness to revolt against changes that force their children into more racially and economically diverse schools.

"I don’t want my child going to a school in a neighborhood with robberies and muggings and assaults," Ben Fetting, a parent at Ballenger Creek Elementary School, said at a meeting held May 17 to discuss the idea.

Moments later, while a school official responded to his remarks, Mr. Fetting shouted from his seat: "My son won’t go to South Frederick [Elementary School] if this happens. He will go to a private school."

"So will mine," shouted someone else in the standing-room-only auditorium.

Two days later, the school board voted unanimously to halt the staff’s research into combining the students from Ballenger Creek and South Frederick into a K-2 school and a grades 3-5 school.

Hurt Feelings

Parents and teachers at South Frederick Elementary were disappointed that their neighborhood was portrayed negatively in the abbreviated debate, according to the school’s principal.

But many of them didn’t want to merge schools either, said Ann E. Reever, the principal of the 500-student school here in the city of Frederick, the county seat.

"The bottom line is our parents don’t want their children going to another community’s school," Ms. Reever said.

School board members acted quickly to scuttle the idea because they thought that the potential learning benefits would eventually be overshadowed by the social upheaval caused by combining two school communities from different parts of the county.

The debate had all the emotion of traditional decisions about school boundaries, said Bonnie M. Borsa, a school board member for the 39,000-student district.

"Then you have the added dimension ... that this was changing the demographics in hopes of improving student achievement," Ms. Borsa said.

Extended Learning

South Frederick Elementary School is located in the urban core of this rapidly growing outer suburb about 50 miles from both Washington and Baltimore.

Fewer than half the school’s students scored at the proficient level or above on the state reading and mathematics tests last year. About half its enrollment is African-American; another 10 percent is either Hispanic or Asian.

South Frederick is one of two elementary schools in the county that have failed to reach their achievement targets under the No Child Left Behind law for two straight years.

When district officials outlined options for improving those schools before federal sanctions kick in next year, the school board ordered them to start offering extended learning opportunities.

The board also asked them to explore merging the two low-achieving schools with high-achieving ones and to create, in each case, a K-2 school and a grades 3-5 school.

The change, district staff members said, would help low- achieving students, who are mostly from minority groups and low-income families, benefit from proximity to high-achieving students.

Although research suggests that going to school with high-achieving students benefits low achievers, people in Frederick County, particularly at Ballenger Creek, didn’t foresee any benefit for their school’s children.

At the May 17 meeting, Ballenger Creek’s parents complained that a merger would disrupt their community.

Others warned that their property values would fall and their children’s education would suffer.

"Where’s the research that shows it will benefit my high-achiever?" asked one mother at that meeting.

The Ballenger Creek auditorium was packed with parents of children who attend the 840-student school, 80 percent of whom are white and 13 percent of whom are African-American.

"What I was seeing and hearing was: ‘I don’t want my kids going to school with those kids,’" Gary Green, an African-American parent from South Frederick, said in an interview after the meeting. "You know what the next word [was] that was going to come out of their mouth," he said, alluding to a racial epithet.

In the end, South Frederick administrators are pleased that they will get more money to pay teachers to run after-school programs for students falling below state standards.

The additional time will amount to an extra 48 days of instruction per school year, according to Ms. Reever, the principal.

And it will also be an intervention that is proven to work, according to Ms. Borsa, the school board member.

Vol. 23, Issue 39, Page 10

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