Maryland School District Fights for Diversity and Inclusion

School desegregation remains the subject of much discussion in American education. Long viewed as an important cornerstone of a civil society, achieving full desegregation remains elusive. Southern and Northern states engaged in “massive resistance,” often creating private or parochial schools to maintain segregation. The Brown v. Board of Education case--and the Brown II case that followed--pushed desegregation forward but in a slow, halting and incomplete manner.

Since the 1950s and 1960s, the demographic shifts of the American cities have significantly changed with increasingly white affluent counties surrounded by impoverished Black and brown communities. This has led to the resegregation of American education. Efforts to address this issue, especially in counties have been slow and halting. Howard County, Maryland --which includes the nationally touted model community of Columbia-- is directly confronting this problem.

The county is considering a bold redistricting plan designed to redistribute school districts and create a more racially and economically inclusive community.

The effort to redistrict in Howard County is the brainchild of Howard County Superintendent Michael J. Martirano. In January, the school board approved directing Martin to begin a comprehensive redistricting program. He proposes to move more than 7,300 students to achieve three goals: alleviate present overcrowding, address inequities in the distribution of students impacted by poverty and establish a pathway for students who will ultimately attend the district’s 13th high school. He stresses the importance of equity, and wants the community to understand why the district is embarking on this course of action, according to the Baltimore Sun.

The proposal involves reassigning 7,396 students, which include 3,194 elementary students, 1,351 middle and 2,851 high school students. The superintendent’s plan addresses students who participate in the district’s free and reduced-price meals program, which is known as FARMs. It seeks to target schools with a high overall FARMs. The plan proposes to reduce the overall percentage of students on the program in the school and move closer to the county average of 22.5%. This is being done to more evenly distribute these students across the district rather than concentrating them in certain schools.

Residents in the district have responded to the Howard County Council’s call for an inclusive district and the Superintendent's proposal. Many who live in more affluent portions of the district are opposed to the plan. Opponents such as Deepak Baskaram, an Elliott City resident and father of three, believe the plan means his children might end up attending a lower performing school four miles away from the school they are currently zoned into. Some parents have banned together to start of Facebook page titled “Howard County School Redistricting Opposition.” The page has more than 1,900 members. At River Hill High School, an affluent school with few Black or Hispanic students, parents actively protest the plan with signs featuring slogans such as “No Forced Busing” and “Don’t Dismantle Communities,” according to the Baltimore Sun.

Advocates of the plan have a different take. Linda Lesile, PTA President at Wilde Lake, which will gain hundreds of students from the River Hill High school, believes there is inherent value in interactions between more and less affluent students. In addition to racial and socioeconomic diversity, she cites increased parental engagement and more money and resources for the school’s academic and athletic pursuits.

Students and parents have publicly expressed their views at public forums on the plan. At the final public hearing on the Martirano proposal, several students and parents testified. The meeting began with an admonition from Vice Chairwoman Kirsten Coombs. She urged residents to “exercise civility and be kind through this emotional process…” She continued, “our children are watching and listening and it is up to the adults to be a positive role model and that goes for whatever you feel; do not demonize the other side, listen to people patiently and please, please treat everyone with respect as you would deserve.”

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.