In September, the River Hill Community Association’s (RHCA) Board of Directors (BOD) submitted written testimony and presented oral testimony at the Board of Education (BOE) public hear-ings regarding the proposed redistricting of nearly 7,400 Howard County Public School students for the next school year. The BOD’s testimony focuses on maintaining cohesive and connected communities for the over 300 children currently residing in certain neighborhoods within the Village of River Hill who would potentially be redistricted to schools outside of the village for school year 2020-2021.
On September 9, more than 130 people attended the River Hill Community Association’s (RHCA) meeting of the Board of Directors (BOD) to express their concerns and overwhelming opposition to the Howard County Public School System Superintendent’s Attendance Area Adjustment Proposal. Most of the attendees were from within the boundaries of the village. Both village neighbor-hoods, Pointers Run and Pheasant Ridge, were well represented and they were joined by some Clarksville residents who live in the surrounding area who are also affected by the proposal. After lis-tening to members of the community, including representatives from the Pointers United and Keep Communities Together groups, the BOD unanimously voted to support a position of keeping students from the Village of River Hill together and to keep them at local, community-based schools.
The village is unique in that it is separated from the rest of Columbia by the Middle Patuxent River and the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area (Section 1/Area 1), which is part of the village’s open space. The village is also divided by State Route MD 32 with the Pointers Run neighborhood being split into four areas. Additionally, given the way the parcels of land were accumulated in the 1960’s by the Rouse Company, two sections of the Pheasant Ridge neighborhood are only accessible from Trotter Road. Therefore, since its inception in 1991, and as the community has grown, RHCA has worked tirelessly to build and maintain a strong community and interpersonal connections between residents.
Residents interact at the village’s single outdoor pool, exercise at the Columbia Gym, shop and run into each other in the River Hill Village Center, participate on various association committees, attend meetings, classes and events at Claret Hall, and enjoy the various open space amenities the community offers. Our youth participate on two neighborhood swim teams, the Pheasant Ridge Rapids and the Pointers Run Piranhas; attend local schools; are affiliated with local scout troops and sports teams; participate in community-wide events such as the association-sponsored Independence Day Parade and Haunted Hallow’s Eve; when older, have opportunities to serve on the association’s Traffic and Safety, Watershed Advisory, and Teen Advisory committees; and may be appointed to serve as Student Members of the BOD. Through the years the association has also created ties with the local schools. For example, RHCA has collaborated with staff at Pointers Run Elementary School (PRES) on a 4th grade unit about communities, organized a Flag Day celebration at Clarksville Elementary School (CES), and worked with students to renovate the outdoor education area at Clarksville Middle School (CMS). In July, the Atholton High School Marching Band and the River Hill High School Boosters participated in the association’s 20th annual Independence Day Parade.
Therefore, the BOD supports village residents and agrees that the Superintendent’s plan contradicts an essential part of the philosophy on which Columbia was founded. A major aspect of James Rouse’s vision for Columbia was that it should be a garden for growing people developed also to “cultivate a sense of social responsibility among its residents.” Ensuring opportunities for life-long learning was one of the goals and in their early design efforts, Columbia’s planning workgroup envisioned that “[e]ach village would be focused around its educational resources: the schools, li-brary, meeting rooms and community school for continuing education, would be clustered and with them the religious, health and major recreation facilities and consumer services in a village center.”
While we know today, that the elements of Columbia’s villages and their structure have evolved over time and not all of the concepts envisioned by the workgroup have become a reality, in the Village of River Hill, education, local schools, and the associated social interactions were a focus in its design. PRES (Section 1/Area 2) and River Hill High School (RHHS) and ballfields (Sec-tion 3/Area 1) reside within the boundaries of the village. PRES was sited directly opposite the existing Clarksville Middle School (CMS) creating a physical and visual connection. Originally all ele-mentary-aged students in the village were assigned to PRES. This changed in the early 2000’s when students residing in the Pheasant Ridge neighborhood were redistricted to CES and students in the Pointers Run neighborhood remained at PRES. CES soon became an integral part of the River Hill community. Many village students can easily walk or bike to the elementary schools using the pathways and sidewalks that are hallmarks of Columbia. Both elementary schools feed into CMS further supporting the connections and strengthening the community.
The BOD agrees with the residents it has heard from and believes the Superintendent’s proposal violates HCPSS Policy 6010, fails to support the Strategic Call to Action (SCTA), and does not reflect the public’s well documented feedback from the July community input sessions held by the school system. The feedback from residents from across Howard County, including the Village of River Hill, made it clear that the majority prioritize maintaining community stability, consistent school feeds, and minimizing transportation times as the top factors to consider in any redis-tricting effort. The Superintendent’s proposal completely ignores the public’s feedback.
Section IV.B of Policy 6010 states; “school attendance areas should promote a sense of community in both the geographic place (e.g., neighborhood or place in which a student lives) and the promotion of a student from each school level through the consideration of: keeping strong feeds from one school level to the next.” The Superintendent’s proposal plans to move elementary and middle school children from our community’s schools to schools in another village. This change will require significantly longer bus rides, increase our carbon footprint, and decrease our ability to maintain and build a cohesive and connected community.
In the Pointers Run neighborhood, the Superintendent has proposed to move 153 elementary school students located in four polygons (64, 1064, 129, and 1129) to Swansfield Elementary School, in the Village of Harper’s Choice. These polygons make up the largest section of the Pointers Run neighborhood. On behalf of the residents in this neighborhood, the BOD asks the Board of Education to keep these four polygons together in one of our community elementary schools, either PRES or CES.
The Superintendent has proposed to move 207 middle school students from seven polygons (28, 185, 186, 1028, 1185, 1186, and 2028), made up in large part from River Hill’s Pheasant Ridge neighborhood, to Harper’s Choice Middle School. This move divides the Pheasant Ridge neighborhood, leaving students residing on, or on streets directly off, Great Star Drive at CMS. If this shift occurs as proposed, the neighborhood will be split between schools. The BOD asks the BOE to keep all students from the Pheasant Ridge neighborhood together at CMS, as it is the community’s natural middle school.
It is apparent to the BOD that the current redistricting proposal is more complex than solving issues of overcrowded classrooms and the opening of a new high school. Issues of equity, race, and socioeconomics as they relate to Howard County’s children are complex and are of the highest importance. The board believes that we, as a county, need to work collaboratively to find solutions that will ensure equity and close achievement gaps across the school system while building relationships and strengthening communities. The association has heard from River Hill residents who want to work with those in other Columbia villages and our neighbors in the broader county to foster greater equity throughout the school system.
The BOD encourages the BOE to reject the Superintendent’s plan as proposed and recommends that any redistricting be delayed until the 2021-2022 school year to allow for all residents to work on a plan. The BOD recommends creating community groups based on individual schools that include parents, students, and community leaders. These groups can formulate redistricting options with guidance from the BOE within a predetermined time frame. Following presentations from the community groups and using the best suggestions, the BOE can be better informed and able to craft a thorough, well thought out redistricting plan.