In August, Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano introduced a redistricting proposal in one of the wealthiest and highest-performing districts in the nation—Howard County, Maryland. The superintendent’s proposal was controversial, because in addition to redrawing school boundaries to reduce overcrowding, it sought to further racial and socioeconomic integration through transferring students. Although the plan did not pass as boldly framed as its supporters intended, it is still a step in the right direction, and it offers some concrete lessons for other districts on how to move forward with their own integration plans.

What the Approved Plan Does

On November 21, Howard County’s Board of Education approved a contentious redistricting plan, calling it the largest effort in Howard County’s history. Under the plan, about 5,400 students will be transferred to new schools for the 2020–21 academic year (this scaled back the superintendent’s original proposal of moving 7,400 students). In the approved plan, rising seniors, rising juniors, eighth graders, and fifth graders will be exempt from transfer and will remain at their current schools (something that I suggested could ease the plan’s passage in my earlier commentary).

Although the plan does not address the concentration of poverty in schools as aggressively as it should, it still marks progress for Howard County. The decision to approve the plan will advance socioeconomic equity by balancing the proportion of students receiving Free and Reduced Meals (FARMs) program services at many of the county’s schools. Under the plan, 33 schools above the countywide average of 22.5 percent FARM participation will see a decrease in their percentage of students in the program. Out of those 33 schools, 13 will see a FARM participation percentage decrease of between five and twenty-two percentage points.

Lessons for Other Districts

The discussion of Howard County’s redistricting process rose to capture national attention. And now, with this vote, other school districts should study the plan’s successful approval for takeaway lessons to consider when advancing their own equity initiatives.

Bring conversations of race and equity to the forefront. Talking about race and equity in any community can be divisive, spark controversy, and bring discomfort and pain—particularly if community resources are divided along racial and economic lines—but moving forward beyond these obstacles is necessary to bring growth and progress. Despite death threats to the superintendent and alleged racist verbal attacks on black families, Howard County’s school board stood up for school diversity when they voted. And as a result, thousands of students will benefit. Students have been vocal in their support of the redistricting proposal. “I am glad that some redistricting happened. This is the first step to socioeconomic equity,” said Alisa Drake, a junior at Wilde Lake High School, where students said that they heard stereotypes about their school. Because of the school board’s tenacity, the lives of thousands of students will be positively changed, and the most vulnerable students will have access to strengthened learning environments.

Study the proven strategies that have advanced equity. The superintendent’s plan helps disadvantaged students through lessening the concentrations of poverty and racial isolation in schools. The Century Foundation has identified 100 district and charter networks that have undertaken this successful approach, using socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment. (In the coming months, The Century Foundation plans to assemble a consortium of school districts pursuing diversity so that school superintendents can learn best practices, and through proactive community outreach, model these practices in their school districts.)

Encourage districts to keep moving forward and build from each other. A takeaway from Howard County is to not devalue incremental change. Even though the redistricting plan makes only modest changes in student assignments, these can lead to dramatic improvements for thousands of students in impacted schools, and the positive example of Howard County can greatly improve the national landscape of education policy. “This plan sends a message that diversity and integration are prioritized,” said Sofia O’Callaghan, a sophomore at River Hill High School, where only 5 percent of students are identified as low-income, and where most parents expressed disfavor for the plan. And indeed, attention now shifts one state over, to Richmond Public Schools in Virginia, as Schools Superintendent, Jason Kamras seeks to further integration by rezoning the school district. 

There is much work to be done, and the responsibility remains on school leaders and communities to make schools intellectually and culturally affirming environments. Superintendent Martirano sparked a national conversation calling for leaders to be thoughtful and intentional in integrating their schools. A job well done to the superintendent, and now, fellow school leaders must follow suit.