Hanlin recommends school boundary adjustments

The Wicomico County Board of Education will be presented on Tuesday with a plan to move middle school students in two Salisbury-area neighborhoods.

On Capitol Hill, the Social Security program is often referred to as the “third rail” in politics — any elected leader who dares to touch it will suffer an election-time electrocution.

For a long time in Wicomico County, the third rail was alcohol sales at the Youth & Civic Center. No one dared touch that issue for fear of becoming like some unlucky person who comes into contact with the rail that powers subway trains.

These days, the third rail in Wicomico’s government appears to be the issue of public schools redistricting.

Based on their unsuccessful efforts of five years ago, county leaders know that redistricting plans are inevitably greeted with howls of protest. Back then, efforts to enact mathematically logical redistricting maps were washed away by overwhelmingly emotional arguments.

The sense is that parents will not tolerate school board changes that redirect their children to unanticipated schools.

Late last month, schools Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin placed before the school board a two-pronged proposal to prevent student overcrowding at the new Bennett Middle School. Already, in just its fourth year, the Fruitland school has just over 1,000 students and is on the verge of capacity issues — the county has already decided it needs to spend $1.4 million to enlarge the school’s cafeteria/auditorium because of lunchtime overcrowding.

“We currently have an enrollment bubble in our fifth grade,” Hanlin told County Council members on Jan. 16. “We have a high population in fifth grade that is getting ready to move next year into middle school. Unfortunately, that bubble is moving mostly into Bennett Middle.”

The boundary adjustments would be for middle schools only. With the relocation of Bennett Middle School to Fruitland four years ago, these two areas are closer to Salisbury Middle and Wicomico Middle schools.

Hanlin’s proposal is for all current 5th-, 6th-, and 7th-graders in the affected areas attend either Salisbury Middle or Wicomico Middle starting with next school year.

The school system already planned to grant special permission to any current 7th-graders wishing to continue to attend Bennett Middle next year, if the family provides transportation.

A boundary adjustment affecting fifth-graders departing Pemberton Elementary will direct about 90 of those youngsters to Salisbury Middle. Those students wouldn’t attend Bennett Middle, but will eventually join their elementary and middle school cohorts in attending James M. Bennett High School.

The plan ensures that the fifth-graders will still attend the high school already assigned to them.

The affected students now attend Pemberton but live north and west of the school. The segment extends south from Route 50, down the east side of Pemberton Drive, extending to the West Salisbury Little League Complex.

Salisbury Middle is actually closer to their homes than Bennett Middle.

The other proposed change involves the middle school for students who reside in an area at the northeastern edge of the Bennett Middle attendance area. This area is bordered on the west by Snow Hill Road, on the south by the Salisbury Bypass, and on the north by the existing Wicomico Middle attendance area boundary. Approximately 60 students live in this area.

The system’s total enrollment this year stands at 14,953, up 64 students from the previous year’s total. Elementary school enrollment is 7,745, up 44 students. Of the grades in elementary, this year’s 5th Grade stands out for having 120 more students than the year before. That’s the “bubble” that will move to and through the middle schools starting next year.

In an innovative move, Hanlin will also use a curriculum addition in an effort to attract 50 students to Salisbury Middle School.   

A Project Lead The Way Gateway Program academy would be based at Salisbury MIddle. The science-oriented, projects-based curriculum is expected to be strongly desired. The initial class would be made up of 50 students who would apply for the curriculum; with the addition of 50 students each year, the program will top out at 150 students after three years.   

“We need to start with one program and be sure to do it right,” the superintendent said. We need to adjust some boundary lines, but we’re doing it on a very limited basis.”

The student-teacher ratios are more favorable at both Wi-Middle and Salisbury Middle. Bennett Middle’s ratio is 24 students per one teacher. At Wi-Middle the ratio 16-to-1; at SMS the ratio is 12-to-1.

Based on the the lessons learned in the last attempt to redistrict schools in Delmar and Pittsville, Hanlin employed a different communications strategy to inform affected students and parents.

The superintendent shared her recommendations with families who would be affected by the proposed boundary adjustments in two meetings, one at Pemberton Elementary on Jan. 25 and one at Prince Street Elementary on Jan. 29.

All families with students who would be affected by the boundary adjustments under consideration were invited to the meetings by letter and phone calls.

Based on feedback received from families at the two meetings, Hanlin has adjusted her recommendation to also grant special permission to any current 6th-graders in those two areas, provided the family provides transportation.

Hanlin will formally present her recommendations to the Wicomico County Board of Education for discussion and a vote at its Tuesday meeting.

While Bennett Middle is near capacity now, Salisbury Middle and Wicomico Middle are both under capacity and could serve more students,” Hanlin said. “The adjustments would ease the enrollment impact on Bennett Middle while also improving instruction for students by creating more balanced teacher-student ratios.”

In the school board’s quarterly meeting with the County Council last month, neither Hanlin nor Board President Don Fitzgerald ever used the word “redistricting,” preferring phrases such as “boundary line adjustments” and enrollment balancing.”

When Councilman Larry Dodd, himself a former school board member, asked if the pair was actually discussing redistricting, Fitzgerald replied: “We don’t use that word.”

 

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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