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School Redistricting has Increased Segregation in Howard County schools


School Redistricting has Increased Segregation in Howard County schools

Rick Kohn

Over the years, schools in Howard County have become increasingly segregated by race and income.

Certain school districts have much higher concentrations of low-income students than neighboring school districts. 

Given the strong correlation between race and income, those districts are also segregated by race and ethnicity. 

Continuing with this campaign's goal of advocating for equity in county policies, here, we focus on high school district segregation by income. 

The data were recently revised after we and others had pointed out that the previous data were inconsistent with other published data.

Here is a link to the memo the Superintendent sent to inform them of the discovered discrepancies. We use the resulting revised data provided by the public school system in Maryland Public Information Act Request #2018-004. 

Definitions: Current – keeping districts as they currently are, FS – Feasibility Study Plan, AAC1 – the first plan offered by the AAC, and AAC2 – the second plan offered by the AAC, and Integrated – an alternative plan that does not attempt to maintain segregated districts.

A summary of the distribution of students on Free and Reduced Meals (FARM) for five different redistricting plans is provided in Table 1 (click to enlarge). 

Data on percentage of students on FARM programs are frequently used as a measure of low-income students.

Students are only eligible for FARM if they are living at about twice the poverty level or less, and it is a metric available to schools. 

It may be observed that currently, we have neighboring school districts with vastly different percentages of FARM students. 

These districts have been developed over the past two decades due to growth in low-income housing developments in certain areas, combined with redistricting decisions that created wealthy and low-income districts. 

The school system has drawn district borders between low-income and high-income neighborhoods.

Figure 1 - Current Demographic Map with School Overlay.jpg

The map in Figure 1 shows that low-income populations are concentrated in certain areas of the county, and school district lines have been drawn to create schools that are segregated by income.

In the figure, each circle represents a collection of houses that are districted together to certain schools. 

The size of the circles represents the number of students in the area (aka polygon), ranging from a few students to hundreds. 

The color of the polygon shows the percentage of students on Free and Reduced Meals (FARM).

One can see that low-income students are concentrated in southeastern Howard County.

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Current FARM Distribution

Certain bordering school districts vary greatly in the percentage FARM students (Table 1, First column). 

For example, Atholton HS borders Oakland Mills HS, Hammond HS, and Wilde Lake HS but if the current district is maintained, it will have only 10.7% FARM compared with 48%, 37% and 42%, for OM, Ha, and WL, respectively. 

Howard HS borders Oakland Mills HS and Long Reach HS, but Howard HS is projected to have 16% FARM vs. 48% and 39%, for OM and LR, respectively. 

As shown in Table 2 (click to enlarge), the four high school districts with the highest number of FARM students (OM, WL, LR, Ha) have 64% of all FARM students in the county.  The highest five high schools (OM, WL, LR, Ha, Re) have 76% of all FARM students.  Clearly, income is not balanced among schools in the county.

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Feasibility Study FARM Distribution

The Feasibility Study (FS) did not achieve the goal of balancing the districts by income (Table 1, column 2). 

The FS actually increased the percentage FARM in Oakland Mills HS, the district already having the highest percentage, by more than 3 units (47.8 to 50.9%). 

The FS did increase the FARM percentage in Atholton HS district, a district that currently carves out a high-income area nestled among three low-income districts.  

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However, the overall standard deviation in FARM percentage among schools did not change significantly in the FS, showing no improvement in FARM balance. 

The FARM percentage in Howard HS district decreased by dividing out some lower income areas in Elkridge.

The FARM percentage in River Hill HS was maintained at only 2-3% by taking only high-income areas from Atholton HS. River Hill avoided the low-income area immediately to the east.

AAC1 and AAC2 FARM Distribution

After numerous concerns were raised by residents of the Atholton HS district, the AAC proposed restoring the entire Atholton HS district and instead recommended River Hill take closer low-income neighborhoods from Wilde Lake. 

The Thunderhill neighborhood in the northeast of Oakland Mills district and the Allview neighborhood in the southwest of Oakland Mills district are both moderate-income areas that were slated for removal from Oakland Mills by the FS in a plan that removed wealthier neighborhoods. 

Many residents of both neighborhoods registered their concerns and asked to remain in Oakland Mills district, and the AAC restored Thunderhill neighborhood, but not all of Allview.  This decreased the FARM percentage slightly for Oakland Mills. 

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The standard deviation is slightly lower for the AAC plans and the maximum FARM percentage also decreased, making these changes positive compared to the original plan issued in the FS. 

However, with the maintenance of several high-income school districts bordering low-income districts, these revised plans cannot be considered to have met the goal of balancing income demographics for the districts.

In fact, in many discussion groups Board of Education members (e.g. Chairperson) have indicated that balancing for income was never considered in any way while developing the plans, and clearly the data were not even available to do so. 

As a result, we have districts that have maintained the segregation that has been fostered over the past decade.

The Integrated Plan

The final column on Table 1 shows the distribution of FARM students for a preliminary (Integrated) plan. 

This plan generally does not move walkers to any high school, minimizes bus routes, uses contiguous districts, and balances enrollment across the county. 

It moves slightly more students than the current plans. It turns out, in many cases it is possible to decrease lengths of bus rides by doing away with the segregated districts.

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The integrated strategy involves moving River Hill HS district directly eastward taking some low-income neighborhoods (but not walkers) from Wilde Lake and Atholton.

Atholton takes some low-income students to the east from Hammond. 

Wilde Lake expands on its northeastern side taking some higher income neighborhoods from Centennial and Howard. 

Oakland Mills also expands toward the northeast to take neighborhoods from Howard. 

Howard moves southeast pulling neighborhoods from Long Reach. 

In the end, all of the schools with low-income students also are balanced with wealthier neighborhoods.

The integrated plan is not a complete plan. It is merely developed to show that it is possible to provide for greater income balance across more schools, without bussing students to a greater extent than currently. 

A few schools that are not bordering low-income areas continue to maintain low concentrations of low-income students.

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Reasons for maintaining segregated districts

The discussion boards and comments submitted to the AAC for consideration have included several reasons for maintaining the current segregated structure. 

Many comments refer to home values declining if low-income students are permitted to attend schools in high-income areas, or if students in high-income areas are required to attend low-income schools. 

Comments have also attacked the quality of the low-income schools, noting the facilities and building structures are inferior, and test performance is lower.

Complaints have raised questions of gangs and criminal activity in low-income schools. 

Are the facilities at low-income schools actually inferior? Are any of these claims legitimate?

Others state that the bus rides are longer to the low-income schools, or the residents are walkers to the high-income schools. 

They complain that trails do not completely connect to the low-income schools. Ironically, some of the considered changes improve upon these transportation issues, but are not considered advantages when the improved transportation issues result in redistricting to low-income schools. 

For example, Atholton HS district lies almost completely to the west of the high school building, and yet there is excess capacity in the west. The bus routes extend considerably to navigate exclusively through the high-income areas. Very little concern has been raised about the long bus rides. 

River Hill district was initially proposed to go out of the way to the south, rather than to the closer low-income area to the east, with little objection 

Walkers to overcrowded Howard High School object being redistricted out of their high-income district to a bordering low-income district because they are walkers to the high school.

Once the new high school in the northeastern Howard County is built, many current Howard High School students will be redistricted to fill the new school. 

This means many of the current Long Reach students will be redistricted to Howard High School, lowering the average income of students attending Howard. 

Will the walkers to Howard High School still object to taking the bus under those circumstances?

It should be noted that many comments from residents of high-income neighborhoods attending low-income schools are considerably different from these from parents trying to stay in their high-income schools. 

Many such residents attending low-income schools want to remain in the schools they are in currently. They express that facilities are comparable and students do just as well, although average test scores for the schools may be lower because the lower-income students on average perform slightly lower.

Why these results might differ slightly from other results  

These data reflect the percentage FARM in grades Kindergarten through 12th grade in each HS district, not only the high school grades. 

Less aggregated data were not provided in the corrected MPIA request 2018-004. 

Furthermore, the school system censored data with fewer than 5 FARM students per polygon, so these data were estimated from previously reported data and an adjustment for typical deviation from previous data (30% increase).