COLUMBIA AT A CROSSROADS
Drooping test scores spur school exodus
Many affluent families are bypassing older Columbia schools, raising fears of segregation in 'The Next America.'
Leaving Columbia: Middle school children board a private bus in Clemens Crossing, avoiding the older Wilde Lake Middle School in favor of the new Lime Kiln Middle School in southern Howard County. (Sun photo by David Hobby )
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."