By Katya Marin
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of two opinion pieces on an ongoing boundary study that will re-draw the school boundaries between four elementary schools – Bethesda Elementary, Chevy Chase Elementary, North Chevy Chase Elementary, and Rosemary Hills Primary schools. There are a wide variety of opinions on the study, which touches on issues including simplifying confusing school matriculation patterns for the East Bethesda neighborhood, and maintaining racial and demographic balance at all the schools. Currently, some students are bused between the Rosemary Hills community in Silver Spring and Bethesda Elementary. The first opinion piece is written by Katya Marin, an East Bethesda resident and parent. Marin has been involved in the boundary process, but is not an official member of the boundary study committee. Check back with Patch later today for an opinion piece from the Rosemary Hills community.
Invariably when there is a discussion about the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Cluster boundary study, someone mentions that all of the schools involved are good schools. It’s important to keep in mind that the proposed boundary changes are not being sought in order to “fix” these schools (e.g., demographic disparities or performance issues), but simply to address overcrowding throughout the cluster and, in particular, the partial pairing and split articulation patterns of East Bethesda.
In addition to these objectives, the Boundary Study Committee established criteria against which they could measure the options.
1) Keep neighborhoods together.
2) Minimize travel times and distances.
3) Keep school within capacity, incorporating any feasible additions.
4) Eliminate partial pairing of Rosemary Hills ES and Bethesda ES, and provide straight articulation.
5) Maintain demographic balance at all four schools.
6) Minimize island assignments.
7) Maximize walking access to schools and bicycling access.
8) Keep East Bethesda community together.
9) Minimize year-to-year disruptions to students and families.
10) Minimize numbers of students affected by boundary changes.
The committee initially set out to evaluate two options. After concerns were raised over demographic balance across the school, three options were added for a total of five.
In reality, the racial composition changes very little across the options (see chart in the "Photos" section.) If diversity at these cluster schools is an objective, it is achieved under all of the options, not just those that require busing and cross-busing children from one neighborhood to another. (The options show nominally more movement on ESOL and FARMs rates, but the real disparities there are due to special programs at particular schools, and not the makeup of the general student populations.) While Options 3 and 4 appear to create broader diversity, it comes at the expense of diversity at CC, NCC and RH. And the busing required for Options 3 and 4 compromises the study’s other criteria of reducing travel time and island assignments, and maximizing walking and bicycling access to schools. In fact, many of the children slotted for busing to Bethesda Elementary and Chevy Chase Elementary in Options 3 and 4 live within a quarter mile of Rosemary Hills Elementary. If children had never been bused between Bethesda and Silver Spring in the first place, these options wouldn’t even make it to the table.
Option 1 is the most preferable, along with Option 5, because they keep communities together, and avoid island assignments and onerous bus rides.
So why choose a local school as opposed to an equally good school only four miles away? Well, first there are subjective reasons. For example, my stepsons live in Battery Park and attend B.E. On any given day, they can walk, bicycle or bus to school, and if they’re running late, they can get there by car in 5 minutes or less. They run into schoolmates everywhere we go in Bethesda, which gives them a strong sense of community and bolsters their social network. In East Bethesda, by contrast, children get on any one of four school buses, parting ways with neighbors or friends they made in earlier grades. When they are in downtown Bethesda or in the local parks, they find themselves surrounded by children they don’t know, many of whom attend a local school together.
Then there are objective reasons, the most significant being travel time, particularly in light of BRAC. Traffic in between Bethesda and Silver Spring is almost unendurable now, and it will only get worse. Effective this summer, total employee population at NIH will increase by 2,500 to 10,500. Outpatient appointments and visitors will go from 435,000 to 919,000 annually, bringing a combined total of over 5,000 more cars per weekday to already failing roads and intersections in Bethesda. A proposed 30-minute bus ride could stretch into an hour, and mean even earlier wake-up times for families in Bethesda and Silver Spring.
It is debatable, and widely debated, whether one should zone by demographics or geography, but what we face is a decision where we don’t have to choose. We can have both. Or we can have balanced demographics coupled with unnecessarily long travel times. We have a new MCPS Superintendent starting July 1st, Dr. Joshua Starr, and he will recommend one of these five options to the Board of Education in October. He was quoted in a recent interview, talking about his family’s move to Montgomery County, saying, “Whether we buy or rent, we've got to find something that will work for us, and be in the neighborhood that enables me to be able to commute without having to go too far…” Let’s hope he wants the same for our children.