Howard County, Maryland—a diverse and affluent community located between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.—boasts one of the most desirable and fastest-growing school systems in the country. But Superintendent Michael Martirano knew that the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) needed to make a change.
In 2019, 22.5 percent of HCPSS students received free and reduced meal service (FARMS), a measure that is commonly used to track poverty levels in school populations. However, some HCPSS schools enrolled fewer than 5 percent of students receiving FARMS, while others enrolled nearly 70 percent. District officials knew that decades of research suggest that schools with high levels of poverty rarely provide equal opportunities for low-income students. Furthermore, schools that are segregated by socioeconomic status deprive middle-class students in affluent, predominately White schools of the educational and social benefits of a diverse learning environment. Despite the fact that the research was on their side, district officials also knew that making changes to school boundaries, especially with the goal of integrating schools, would be highly controversial. They needed to come up with a well-thought-out plan to enact these necessary and positive changes for all Howard County students.
Superintendent Martirano, with the support of the Howard County Board of Education (HCBOE) and the Howard County Council, created and implemented a bold redistricting plan to combat the socioeconomic segregation that was holding back many HCPSS students. And despite the pandemic, the plan has been moving forward. By the fall of 2020, over 5,500 students had been welcomed—virtually—into newly integrated schools. In a session with the Bridges Collaborative, Martirano laid out his approach to school integration and offered advice for other district leaders who seek to make schools more equitable for all students.
Superintendent Martirano’s recommendations for other districts contemplating or pursuing redistricting plans fall into three main categories: anticipation and preparation, communication, and student, family, and school support.
Superintendent Martirano describes the student enrollment challenge he inherited in an internal session at the Bridges Collaborative
VIDEO Anticipation and Preparation
Superintendent Martirano set the groundwork for successful school integration in HCPSS by anticipating and preparing for potential resistance. When Martirano became interim superintendent of HCPSS in 2017, he knew that he had inherited a school system that was “woefully out of proportion regarding capacity of our schools, [with] schools that were overcrowded and under-crowded,” and was marked by an inequitable distribution of students by race and socioeconomic status.
In order to address these problems, Martirano began by solidifying a coalition made up of elected officials, including the HCBOE and the Howard County Council. In January 2019, the HCBOE voted 8–0 in favor of a motion to begin conversations about redistricting. Three individuals on the five-member Howard County Council publicly supported this move. Martirano knew their approval was crucial: “We have a County Council in Howard County that has been very supportive of . . . addressing the issues of integration. [They] put out a press release and took actions calling for [HCPSS] to develop a county-wide integration plan to desegregate schools. They were lifting it up and were very much in lockstep with my efforts working with the Board of Education.”
In addition to building a broad base of support, Martirano worked to anticipate differences of opinion that might be raised against HCPSS’s plan to redistrict, with the goal of creating more integrated schools. To combat accusations of bias, the district hired an outside consultant to facilitate the process. Martirano also leveraged his own extensive experience in the field of education to ensure that, from the beginning, redistricting was approached in a way that honored the strong and often conflicting feelings the process can evoke. He fully acknowledged that redistricting was “very emotional” and explained that “when you engage in this process, know it’s going to be long. Know it’s going to have varying opinions. Individuals are going to advance a variety of reasons to do it and not to do it. Unfortunately it can become very polarizing. We have to honor that and be respectful of that by having a very open and transparent process.”
Establishing a robust communication plan was a key element of Martirano’s approach to integration in Howard County; HCPSS spent over six months engaging stakeholders, with a focus on transparent communication, equitable community input, and civility and careful listening. In addition to communicating with both local and national media and elected officials such as the Board of Education and the County Council, communication with HCPSS families was of paramount importance. The communication plan was centered around a web-based platform that was updated daily with data, postings of Maryland Public Information Act requests, and a library of principals’ emails.
Central to this communication plan was making the “why” of the redistricting plan clear to the community. Martirano kept capacity utilization at the center of the conversation: 32 of Howard County’s 74 schools were outside their target capacity utilization. In total, 21 schools were above their ideal capacity—with one school at 136 percent of its target enrollment—and 11 schools were below. Martirano also applied an equity lens, highlighting the growing concentration of poverty within certain HCPSS schools. “That had occurred over time, when that variable was not considered in prior redistricting processes,” Martirano explained. His “concern was the major gap as far as the FARMS rate and the spread of poverty within [the] community.” In addition to being transparent about FARMS data, Martirano also made sure to clearly define the legal uses of this data to HCPSS families.
Community outreach was conducted through emails and texts, including communications in Spanish, Korean, and Chinese. Martirano also leveraged school principals to amplify the district’s message and engage their school communities. Additionally, HCPSS conducted eight nights of open work sessions and public forums, which were attended by over 800 community members. These events provided a space for Matirano to engage directly with the public. “What we never wanted to be accused of was closing out the public from the process,” said Martirano. He also underscored the importance of “hav[ing] the time in place to meet with individuals to hear those views, even though philosophically you might be opposed in your opinions.”
The final, and arguably most important, recommendation from Martirano was to provide consistent and continuing support for students, families, and schools that are directly affected by implementing a plan for integration.
To begin the transition process, HCPSS school principals organized purposeful orientations in January 2020 to welcome students and families into the school community. Parents received individualized phone calls encouraging them to attend PTA meetings, volunteer, and find other ways to get involved in their child’s new school. The district continues to send out quarterly surveys to learn more about how parents are engaged and where outreach efforts can be improved.
Martirano stresses “being very sensitive to the fact of the emotional attachment to schools and how we were able to say goodbye to our students at one school and then greet them at another school, and ensuring that every child would get a quality education and love, care, and support regardless of what school they were at in Howard County.” With this in mind, schools worked hard to create intentional connections with incoming students and found ways to do so even amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of physical school buildings. In the spring of 2020, each school held a new student orientation that provided opportunities to sit in on virtual classes or student panels. As the new school year began, school counselors at the elementary level held “lunch bunch” events to help students meet their peers and begin building friendships. In middle and high schools, new students were invited to learn about and participate in extracurricular opportunities, such as student government, athletics, fine arts, or clubs of their choice.
In concert with the focus on students and families, HCPSS provided district-wide professional development for staff, including training on culturally relevant practices, restorative justice, and growth mindset orientation. The district also tailored additional supports to specific school contexts by meeting with principals to identify each school’s needs and potential blindspots, then setting goals aligned with the school’s improvement plan. Targeted interventions were provided for each school site; for instance, schools that expected an increase in their population of English language learners were provided with resources to meet the language needs of new students and families, such as interpreters and translated materials.
Superintendent Martirano implores others to remain steadfast in their commitment to equity in an internal session at the Bridges Collaborative
For school districts that may be considering redistricting as an approach to creating integrated schools, Superintendent Martirano has the following lessons to share from his experience engaging in the redistricting process with Howard County Public Schools.
Anticipate and prepare. Work closely with the local board of education to ensure they fully understand and support the district’s plan. Anticipate that differences of opinion will arise in the community and consider bringing in an outside consultant to gain a fresh perspective.
Communicate. Create a robust communication plan that begins with fully defining the “why” of this work for the community. Include elected officials and the media in communication efforts. Leverage school principals as leaders to amplify messages and engage their communities.
Support. Take a stakeholder approach to providing ongoing support. Consider what students and families will need to feel welcomed into a new school community. Provide both district-wide and school-level supports to ensure that leadership and staff are equipped to create a space where all students will feel a sense of belonging.
Despite the challenges that redistricting presents, this approach holds great promise for creating integrated and inclusive schools that ensure all students have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
header photo source: Howard County Public School System facebook