Drooping test scores spur school exodus

Sun Staff

Second of three articles

As the Columbia parents looked on protectively through the morning fog, their children clambered onto the yellow school bus.

It seemed an ordinary bus, except it took a strange turn - toward a new public school in rural Fulton, away from an older, more diverse Columbia middle school rejected by the kids' parents.

This unusual bus ride, repeated daily in Columbia's Clemens Crossing neighborhood, has become a metaphor for discontent in the town's older schools.

In recent years, hundreds of families have removed their children from many of the town's elementary and middle schools. Most are middle to upper-middle class, and collectively, their decisions to move their children have upset the socioeconomic balance that made Columbia a uniquely integrated city.

James W. Rouse's vision for "The Next America" faces its stiffest test. Schools are the most telling evidence.

The number of children from lower-income families has soared at most of the schools in Columbia's older neighborhoods. African-American enrollment has also surged - to roughly 50 percent or more at five schools - leading some to worry that Columbia's schools are heading toward segregation.

"The whole issue of these schools becoming one color is a very serious threat to the future of Columbia," says Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County and a 28-year resident of the town. "What happens there when you do have drastic change throughout the community is first you have white flight, and then you have upper- and middle-class blacks following. They will leave, too, because they'll feel the schools are not doing well."

Compounding the problem is that these older schools are reporting some of the county's lowest standardized test scores. In this suburb that prides itself on its "top-ranked" schools, it is the ultimate irony that the very source of that pride, the standardized test score, has contributed to the decline of these Columbia schools, once the cream of the county.

The scores, however misleading, helped create the perception that these schools were not doing well, driving hundreds of middle-class families from the surrounding neighborhoods. And the departure of their children compounded the image problem for the schools. For this 33-year-old town, the fates of aging neighborhoods and aging schools have become intertwined.

"It's not just the schools, for those people blaming the schools for Columbia's decline," says Michael E. Hickey, who stepped down in June as superintendent of Howard County schools. " "Columbia's decline is contributing to the schools and the schools are then contributing to Columbia's decline - sort of lateraling the ball back and forth."

The result of this decline, if not addressed, might be a Columbia that looks more like a divided city than Rouse's integrated dream.

"These were the kinds of problems facing neighborhoods in Chicago and Detroit 40 years ago and 50 years ago," says Gary Orfield, co-director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, who has studied school and housing desegregation issues for 30 years. "If you don't have policies to offset these trends, you end up with racial segregation and then economic segregation, and both of them together create classic inner-city-type school problems."

Columbia has not come close to that yet, as Orfield is quick to note. What the town experienced in the past decade was the earliest precursor to racial and economic segregation, a period of transition that passed largely unnoticed yet now has delivered the community to a crucial moment in its young history.

Falling test scores

For some families, the first sign of decline came in the fall of 1993. Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test scores were released to the public for the first time, and six Columbia elementary schools scored significantly below the county average. Even though all those schools still rated better than the state average, the scores were a major disappointment in what was viewed as a vaunted school system.

"I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach," says Lucie Pettis, former vice president of the PTA at Phelps Luck Elementary in Long Reach Village.

At Phelps Luck, fewer than 38 percent of third- and fifth-graders were achieving satisfactory marks on the tests, the third-worst composite score of 26 elementary schools in the county. Pettis, a mother of two, didn't take the news well.

"We were wondering why this had happened. And we were told how many transient students there were, we were told how the population changed," says Pettis, 42. "I was very sad, and I realized that this couldn't be fixed quickly. This reflected serious changes in the school, and not the teaching, but just the makeup of the school, the population of the school. ... The time that I put my kids in, I hadn't noticed, but this woke us up."

What Pettis and Phelps Luck educators saw was the beginning of a rapid transformation at their school and others in many older Columbia neighborhoods.

The fastest changes came in a span of five school years from 1992 to 1997. The number of children eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program at Phelps Luck jumped from 75 to 182, more than a third of the school. At Talbott Springs and Running Brook elementary schools in two other older villages, the free and reduced-price lunch population more than doubled, to more than 50 percent at each.

This period of change seemed to come suddenly at the time, but it may have been the inevitable result of the constructed geography of the town, the delayed impact of a plan drawn up more than three decades ago.

Most Columbia elementaries draw from economically integrated neighborhoods - surrounding communities of single-family homes, townhouses and apartments, most of them linked by walking paths to the schools.

But as new families kept moving into the apartments and townhouses, continually bringing new children for the schools, the owners of single-family homes stayed and aged. Many homes became empty nests; others that sold often were passed over by affluent families who chose newer subdivisions near the newest schools.

Couples without children or less well-off families moved in, and the socioeconomic balance of school populations began to shift. As enrollment dropped, the oldest elementary schools' district boundaries sometimes expanded to draw more from apartments and townhouses, which are often grouped together in Columbia.

At the same time, Columbia's apartments became the county's strongest draw for poor and immigrant families, who found a rare suburban combination of affordability and convenience to good schools.

Some affluent families began noticing the socioeconomic changes in the schools - and the low test scores that tend to track with poverty - and the pace of change accelerated. More homebuyers with children bypassed these neighborhoods, and affluent families began moving to new school districts or transferring their children to what they saw as better schools.

For nervous parents, the easiest way to find the "better" schools was to look for the school districts that served few or no apartments. The elementary schools deemed most successful in Columbia are in neighborhoods of single-family detached homes without apartments: Clemens Crossing in Hickory Ridge Village, Pointers Run in River Hill, and one of Columbia's older schools, Thunder Hill in Oakland Mills. Those three schools had a combined 32 children eligible for subsidized lunches out of nearly 1,900 enrolled last year, and they had Columbia's highest test scores.

These schools haven't changed much over time, and homebuyers with children are still attracted to these neighborhoods - when and if a home becomes available.

"People don't want to leave here. It's a hidden secret," says James Peters, a Department of Defense employee with a son at Thunder Hill Elementary School. Peters lives in the house where he was raised, and his parents didn't move far away - they bought the house next door.

These are the kinds of neighborhoods people hear about when they hear that the experiment of Columbia is, by and large, working. Houses sell quickly, property values don't go down, and homeowners aren't mutating into rental landlords.

The contrast with some other Columbia neighborhoods and their elementary schools grew more obvious with time.

Former Running Brook Elementary parent Sue Aaron noticed a couple of years ago that only couples without children were moving into her neighborhood, and she wondered how many children at Running Brook were still from the single-family homes. The answer from the principal's office: only 35 out of 320.

Change at Phelps Luck

Test scores hit rock-bottom at Phelps Luck in the 1995-1996 school year, just as the free and reduced-price lunch population jumped by almost half in one year.

In that year and the two years following, 244 pupils left as parents moved away, put their children in private school, home-schooled their children or drove them to other public schools under the system's transfer policy.

And even as enrollment dropped, the number of children who qualified for subsidized lunches increased - as did the African-American population, overtaking the white population for the first time three years ago. In other words, the exodus was predominantly middle-class and white. Former Phelps Luck Principal Jim Weisner noticed it.

"Families, they would look at the school and just say that they may want to get their kid in a different-type situation - in a school where they saw more of what their family was like," says Weisner. "That was from white families." This racial pattern became typical in the last decade: Even if the number of black students leveled off after years of increases, the number of white students kept dropping. It happened at many schools in five older Columbia villages: Wilde Lake and Harper's Choice on the west side of U.S. 29, and Long Reach, Oakland Mills and Owen Brown on the east side of U.S. 29.

Two of the children to leave Phelps Luck were Lucie Pettis' son and daughter. In the fall of 1997, Pettis began carpooling the children to Fulton Elementary, a new public school in southern Howard County, almost 10 miles away. The families of six other children chose to make the same long drive that year, all of them taking advantage of a long-standing countywide transfer policy called open enrollment.

Pettis, previously so active in the PTA, says the seemingly intractable test scores and discipline problems wore her down. She and her family finally moved in 1998, even though her husband didn't see the urgency.

"He didn't see what the changes were, he didn't come with me to the PTA meetings, and he didn't come with me to the school, and you don't see it on the street, you don't see it in the houses," Pettis says.

"The children were finding things getting stolen and the children were complaining about all of the discipline problems and a lot of time spent on rewarding good behavior, when we considered that the norm. You shouldn't get prizes for good behavior," she says. "I felt that my kids would do better in a different environment, a more academically challenging environment."

Fulton Elementary was certainly a different environment from Phelps Luck in 1997-1998. Fewer than 5 percent of Fulton's children were eligible for subsidized lunches, compared to 35 percent at Phelps Luck. Seven-eighths of the children there were white, while at Phelps Luck less than half the school was white. The overall test score was significantly better that year, too, with Fulton receiving a composite rating of 63.0 to Phelps Luck's 48.5.

Misleading test scores

But was Fulton actually more academically challenging? If test scores are any measure, for most white students, the answer was no.

White boys in the third grade at Phelps Luck far outperformed white boys in the third grade at Fulton in every MSPAP category in 1997-1998. More than 70 percent received a satisfactory reading score at Phelps Luck, compared to 50 percent at Fulton; in writing, 83 percent scored satisfactory at Phelps Luck, compared to 44 percent at Fulton; in social studies, nearly 78 percent received a satisfactory score at Phelps Luck, while 44 percent scored satisfactory at Fulton.

White girls in the third grade and white fifth-grade boys at Phelps Luck also generally scored better than their counterparts at Fulton, though the scores were much closer. Only white fifth-grade girls at Fulton scored better overall than their counterparts at Phelps Luck.

Throughout this period, Phelps Luck grappled with a rapidly changing population. The student turnover rate was 22 percent in 1997-1998, and there was an influx of non-English-speaking immigrant children. Fulton Elementary was spared these challenges, which can affect a school's ability to lift test scores.

So are test scores the best measure of a school's performance? Educators answer this question unevenly, alternately boasting that scores are a good measure when they are high or playing down their significance when they are low. They tend to agree that scores can be one useful measure of whether a school is improving or declining from one year to the next.

And some agree with David Rusk. A social scientist, Rusk has researched the correlation between test scores and subsidized lunches in Baltimore and other regions in the country. He suggests scores are merely another way to measure a school's poverty, not its quality.

"Tell me the percentage of kids on free and reduced-price lunch and I'll tell you the MSPAP record for the school," says Rusk, author of "Baltimore Unbound," which examines concentrations of race and poverty in the city. The three-year averages of test scores at 213 Baltimore city and county elementary schools, Rusk says, had a "very high" correlation with the schools' three-year averages of subsidized-lunch enrollment.

As with many schools, poverty and race are inextricably linked at Columbia schools. Nearly half of the children are eligible for subsidized lunches at the five elementary schools at or near majority-black enrollment: Bryant Woods, Dasher Green, Phelps Luck, Running Brook and Talbott Springs.

The white population at Phelps Luck, as at other Columbia schools, was significantly more middle class, with only 6 percent participating in the subsidized-lunch program. This group's test scores were significantly higher than the school's average, but the overall number is the one most parents see and rely upon when choosing a school district, just as parents often look at the demographic mix of the school.

"Parents that are moving to Howard County, their Realtors pull out the test scores as a thing to entice them to move to Howard County, and most of the Columbia schools are the ones where the test scores are struggling," Weisner says.

Even this past spring and summer, with the housing market finally heating up in some older Columbia neighborhoods, it was clear that families with school-age children were still avoiding districts like Phelps Luck.

"A lot of the families moving in now have no children," says Pat Esworthy, the treasurer of the Phelps Luck PTA. "In fact, we just had a house sold on our street, and it's a young couple with no children. So they may just stay here a few years until they have children, and then they'll move out to a neighborhood with a better school."

And the county's open-enrollment transfer policy can exacerbate a school's difficulties.

"Having open enrollment, parents can take their kids to a school that's underenrolled. They have a kid that may be performing well and now they're no longer at the school. And that's another thing I saw," Weisner says.

The transfer policy wasn't intended to work this way. It was meant to accommodate families who, for some compelling personal reason, needed to move their children to another school. The other school might be closer to one parent's work or to an after-school day care program.

But in Columbia, the policy facilitated an exodus from schools that were viewed as troubled, deepening the divide between rich and poor, black and white.

Clemens Crossing

The most high-profile case was that of the Clemens Crossing neighborhood, which hired two school buses for nearly $40,000 to take their children to a new middle school.

Clemens Crossing, one of Columbia's few subdivisions of entirely single-family detached homes, is a spirited community with a highly reputed school, Clemens Crossing Elementary. The school is also one of Columbia's least poor and least diverse. Eighty percent of the 662 children are white, and only 19 children qualify for subsidized lunches.

But after elementary school, many of the children of Clemens Crossing are supposed to be bused to Columbia's oldest, most socioeconomically diverse middle school, Wilde Lake Middle.

Wilde Lake had developed in the 1990s a reputation, among some white families in particular, as a tough school, and its test scores have lagged behind those in the rest of the county.

But families couldn't pull their children out of Wilde Lake Middle under the open-enrollment policy, because Wilde Lake had lost so many students that the district prohibited more transfers.

In the summer and fall of 1998, parents in Clemens Crossing fought to change that, rallying together to demand the right to send their children to other schools. Over the objections of top school officials, the elected school board relented in a unanimous vote last spring, with members arguing that Wilde Lake Middle would be better off without the unhappy parents.

So last fall, 50 children from the Clemens Crossing neighborhood who would have gone to Wilde Lake Middle got on the private buses to Lime Kiln Middle School, which is mostly middle class and white.

The parents of these children have complained that their exodus from Wilde Lake Middle has been unfairly portrayed as white flight. They point out that Lime Kiln is a new school with the best facilities, and they found Wilde Lake's leadership and academic environment lacking.

Wilde Lake's below-average test scores also played a crucial role, though again, it went largely unnoticed that white students' scores were on par with their counterparts at the top-rated middle school in the county.

Race and class played roles in this tale as well, if not in the parents' decisions, then in the aftermath. The white population at Wilde Lake Middle dropped below 50 percent for the first time last year, while the African-American population topped 40 percent for the first time, continuing a decade-long trend. The percentage of students eligible for subsidized lunches also crept up slightly, to 28 percent of the school - close to triple the level a decade ago.

The story of the privately hired buses touched a nerve with educators and county officials, who for the first time undertook a concerted examination of the perceived inequities in schools. One of the few tangible results has been a one-year freeze on new transfers countywide - declared by the school board while officials study whether the transfer policy deepens the divide between certain schools.

Some parents, like the Pettises, took open enrollment to what many see as its logical conclusion, eventually leaving their old neighborhood altogether. Once they transferred their children to far-away schools, they felt an added incentive to find a new community. And they usually sold their homes, as Pettis did in Long Reach, to couples without children who weren't shopping by school district.

"It was double-income, no kids," says Pettis, who left in 1998. She rattles off the names of neighbors who also sold to couples without children, and neighboring streets in Long Reach where the same pattern recurred, school-age parents selling to buyers without children. "That's when the sales were easiest."

Of the many parents who remained at Phelps Luck, fewer turned out for events and meetings. The discipline and distraction problems in classrooms seemed to deepen.

Archie Fobbs, an African-American father of three living in a stretch of single-family homes near the school, worries about the differences he has noticed at the school in the brief time between 1995, when his eldest daughter, Samantha, left Phelps Luck, and now, with his younger daughter, Carine, in the fifth grade.

"From Samantha to Carine, we've seen a drastic change in the landscape of Phelps Luck," Fobbs says. "There seem to be more discipline problems going from Samantha to Carine. [Before], I didn't see the principal occupied so much [by discipline issues]."

The teachers' perspective

On the front lines have been teachers like Nancy Koza and Amy Dower, who have taught at Phelps Luck since the 1970s. They worked with Superintendent Hickey, then-Principal Weisner and other teachers to institute a series of changes in the past five years that they believe have already helped turn things around: smaller class sizes, remedial programs for struggling students, one-hour blocks of reading and math time in small groups.

The addition of new instructors for those small groups four years ago was one of the school's first major reforms under Weisner, accomplished by changing how the school spent its federal Title I dollars. It had an immediate impact, cutting down drastically on the constant distractions of what had been a 25-child to 30-child class.

"Now I have one to two groups in that hour. Before I might have had three or four reading groups at the same time," Koza says. Dower interjects: "So you were not only teaching but you were managing the other groups, answering questions about bathroom, I don't feel well, a lot of other things that took place. We really can focus on those children that are in front of us."

For a while, it seemed as if the improvements were working. Some Phelps Luck parents became excited about the school, optimistic that it was in the midst of a turnaround.

Test scores shot up in 1997, putting the school in the middle of the pack - 16th out of 29 - in a county that at the time had the best overall test scores in the state. In the 1998-1999 school year, Koza and Dower saw great strides in the first grade.

"We were very excited," Koza says. "Thirty percent of our children started below grade level. We ended the year with over 90 percent at grade level."

But the daily challenges remain, the challenges that face any of the Columbia schools that have seen a sharp rise in children from lower-income families: behavior problems that distract entire classrooms; pupils from single-parent homes who often need more attention; and a shrinking core of parents willing to help. The influx of families with limited English proficiency compounds the difficulties. The quality of the curriculum and the quality of the teaching, no matter how carefully prepared, can simply be overwhelmed by circumstances.

'It's the behavior'

"I've never had a problem with the teaching. We've been thrilled with the teachers," says Melanie Jackson, an African-American Phelps Luck parent. "It's just the behavior."

Jackson home-schooled two of her Phelps Luck children three years ago, pulling their oldest daughter out of Phelps Luck for one year and another daughter for two years after reaching the point of frustration with classroom distractions.

"I saw kids on the floor just having out-and-out temper tantrums at 7, 8 years old," says Jackson, who spends time volunteering at school. "The other kids in the meantime are watching Johnny on the floor, who's kicking because he didn't want to get off the computer at the time when the teacher said, 'It's time to change classes right now; we're going to another subject.'

"And that was real disturbing to me, because I asked my daughter about that, and she said, 'Oh he does that all the time,'" says Jackson, who is again home-schooling her oldest daughter after pulling her out of Mayfield Woods Middle School. "We as parents felt very powerless, so the only thing we felt we could do was take them out."

Sometimes, the test scores in a given year don't reflect just how tough such problems may be, and sometimes, like last year, they seem to do exactly that.

Inside Phelps Luck's library on a chilly evening last December, a couple of small children played among the aisles of books as about 20 parents waited for Assistant Principal Sana Wilson to speak. She seemed a little tense.

She slowly started reading out the standardized test scores, released earlier that day. The fifth-grade results were the good news. They improved markedly over the previous year. The parents were pleased, nodding and mumbling approvingly as Wilson read the numbers aloud.

But most could sense that bad news was coming. The third-grade scores were next.

Reading: 28.9 percent of students scored "satisfactory," a precipitous drop from 56.6 percent in third grade the year before, and less than half the countywide average. Only 1.3 percent - one student - rated "excellent," down from 14.5 percent a year earlier. Parents began gasping.

The math scores: Just 28.4 percent rated satisfactory, down from 50.6 percent a year earlier. Now, some parents were muttering under their breaths.

Wilson read out score after score, her audience growing restless with the litany of disappointment. When finished, she looked up from her papers and scanned the room. Any questions?

'How did it get so low?'

"How did it get so low?" blurted out Esworthy, the PTA treasurer and grandmother of one of the third-graders tested. "I mean, What happened?"

Wilson's answer spurred more head-shaking. "We had behavior issues with one student who really did exhaust the energies of the third-grade team, and I believe that really had an impact on the third-grade scores."

Tom Grobicki, the father of a second-grader and an active parent, piped up. "You're basically attributing a whole year to a single student, which is hard to believe," he said. "If that did happen, that is totally unacceptable."

Wilson said the school simply hadn't been equipped to take disruptive students from the classroom quickly. There was no alternative education program on site. But now, Wilson noted, there is - thanks to a grant designed to address just such a problem.

"Now we've got a full-time guidance counselor, we've got a full-time social worker, who is the alternative ed coordinator, and we have a full-time educational assistant," she said.

Phelps Luck also brought in a new principal last year to take over from Weisner, who wanted to move on after seven years of ups and downs. In the wake of the school's disappointing scores, then-Superintendent Hickey told John Morningstar, principal of the top-testing elementary school in the county, that he'd be taking over at Phelps Luck.

Though he didn't want the job at first, Morningstar instilled a new sense of hope, much as Weisner had when he arrived in 1993. With Hickey's help, he put Internet-connected computers in every classroom, hired a Spanish-fluent assistant, reached out to parents and tried to make the school more inviting - even with seemingly superficial changes like repainting the building.

"It's all about attitude," he says. "Obviously, families that have left, there's little we can do about that. If they've left, they've left. My focus is to try to make sure that families that move into the community now see it as a very positive place, and I think we're changing that image and turning that around."

Optimism and uncertainty

A growing number of parents say they're optimistic. They are part of a dedicated group at Phelps Luck, many of whom volunteer their time and seem determined to stay and fight. They and Morningstar expect test scores to bounce back this year.

"The school system needs some school to break out of this mold," Morningstar says.

But even at times this past year, parents said they noticed problems in the classroom.

"There's one or two kids who if they have a bad day, everybody has a bad day," Wendy Weidemann told the PTA gathering last December. "And that's really hard to watch as a parent."

Grobicki added that he felt the disruptions are most devastating for students already up against a socioeconomic "boundary" line.

"We have a large vulnerable population," he said. "If you get a kid who's on a boundary, throw in a bad day and they teeter off the edge."

And for parents like Fobbs, whose children are not part of the "vulnerable population," the problems merit watching. His 4-year-old, A. J., will be ready for Phelps Luck soon, though he isn't sure how long he'll stay in Columbia.

Fobbs values raising his children in a diverse environment - "the true value of community is diversity," he says - but still he may pursue greener pastures, where diversity is scarce. He's been dreaming of 6 acres in western Howard, and the time to move could come sooner than later.

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