Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Parents blast bus policy for magnets

Racism and economic discrimination are reasons why some students aren’t transported, parents claim

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A coalition of parents is criticizing the school system’s busing policy for the Middle School Magnet Consortium, calling it racist and discriminatory against some of the county’s poorer families.

In a petition, signed by 190 parents, the group is asking the school board and Superintendent Jerry D. Weast to change the policy of the consortium before Monday. The school board meets Thursday, but the busing policy issue is not on the agenda.

The consortium — funded by a $7.2 million federal grant — is made up of three middle schools: Argyle in Silver Spring, which focuses on information technology; A. Mario Loiederman in Silver Spring, a creative and performing arts school; and Parkland in Aspen Hill, which offers an aerospace technology and robotic engineering program.

Outside the consortium, the school system provides busing to magnet students from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Rockville and Walter Johnson clusters. Under the program, the school system sought to attract private school students from those clusters into public schools.

While parents applaud the magnet consortium, they claim busing is only provided to students west and north of the magnet schools because of the clusters’ demographic makeup. Areas east and south of the magnet schools are not given equal access to transportation, even though the buses travel the same distance to pick up students from more affluent areas, parents charge.

‘‘That’s what we’re asking for,” said Cathy Louviere, president of the Loiederman PTSA, who signed the petition. ‘‘If you’re going to provide [busing] here, provide it there.”

The transportation policy ‘‘facilitates participation in an outstanding magnet program for nearby students from predominantly white, affluent schools, but does not provide similar opportunity to nearby students from predominantly minority, lower-income schools,” wrote parent liaison Leigh Leslie in a Jan. 12 letter to Weast and the school board.

The parents have wrestled two years with the school system to get the policy changed, Leslie said in an e-mail to The Gazette.

‘‘To develop three outstanding programs ... and then facilitate attendance only for students from more affluent predominantly white schools is particularly egregious in the current climate of great concern about the quality of middle school education in MCPS.”

Argyle, Loiederman and Parkland usually draw students from nearby neighborhoods with higher poverty rates. Sixty-two percent of Argyle’s students received free and reduced meals — an indicator of poverty — during the 2005-2006 school year, according to school system statistics. At Loiederman, 68.5 percent of its students received free and reduced meals; at Parkland, it was 67.7 percent.

The magnet program aims to diversify the three schools by attracting students from more affluent areas, while giving poorer children a more challenging curriculum, said Erick J. Lang, associate superintendent of curriculum and instructional programs.

Forty-five percent of Argyle’s population is black, while Hispanics make up 42.3 percent and 46.2 percent of the Loiederman and Parkland populations, respectively, according to school statistics.

The magnet school program is available to all students, with 80 seats at each grade level reserved for students from outside the three schools’ boundaries.

The school system’s argument is simple: It does not have enough money in the operating budget to provide busing to all students in the middle school magnet consortium. The U.S. Department of Education stipulated that none of its grant could be used for transportation.

Lang, who helped create the magnet program, said he understands the parents’ concerns, but rejects charges of racism and economic discrimination. ‘‘I don’t see it that way,” he said. ‘‘We’ve been very upfront with parents about where the transportation would be provided. It’s been very clear what areas have transportation and the ones that don’t.”

The school system provides busing for students in the county’s other middle school magnet programs because they have been around for roughly 20 years, Lang added.

‘‘We’ve tried all along to be frugal in terms of how we approached it,” he said of the Middle School Magnet Consortium busing policy. ‘‘We’re trying to maximize our resources.”

In a July 20 letter, school board President Nancy Navarro (Dist. 5) of Silver Spring asked at least one parent — Burtonsville resident Rajan Natarajan, who signed the petition — to call chief operating officer Larry A. Bowers to schedule a transportation hearing.

Bowers, through schools’ spokesman Brian K. Edwards, declined comment.