Crossing counties for scholastic salvation

Dec. 15, 2005, midnight | By Audrey Kubetin | 14 years, 7 months ago

Students lie about their zip codes and challenge MCPS to improve their education at Blair

Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

Every weekday morning at 6:30 a.m., senior Darren Brown leaves his home in Kemp Mill Estates and walks 30 minutes to the nearest bus stop. From there, he catches a Ride On and takes it across three school districts: first Kennedy's, then Northwood's, then Blake's, arriving at Blair just as the late bell rings.

Brown is one of an estimated five to 10 percent of Blazers who, despite living outside of Blair's service area, still attend this school, according to social studies teacher Brian Hinkle, a member of Blair's Residency Committee. Some students, like Brown, have convinced the school board to change their home-school designations, while others have slipped in under the administration's radar. But no matter how they found their way into the school, most out-of-district students share a common goal: to receive a better education at Blair.

Slipping through the cracks

Before transferring to Blair, Brown spent his freshman year at Kennedy, his home school, struggling with peer pressure and a plummeting GPA. He had grown up alongside most of his classmates, so he easily made friends with drug dealers and other troublemakers. Within the first few weeks of ninth grade, Brown found himself skipping class with seniors he had known most of his life, and he paid the academic price: His grades were Ds and Es in all his classes, including gym.

By the end of ninth grade, Brown knew he couldn't stay at Kennedy if he wanted to graduate from high school. He convinced his parents that, if he was going to turn his life around, he needed to switch to Blair.

Adam, a senior who lives in Prince George's County, found himself in a similar slump four years ago. In middle school, he turned in two or three assignments a week and managed a C average. He spent the rest of his time joking around with friends and making fun of teachers, who seemed to give up on him quickly, he remembers. "If you want to learn, they'll talk to you, but if you want to goof off, that's your problem," says Adam.

By the end of eighth grade, Adam was beginning to get involved with drugs and gangs. His mother knew that this downward spiral would only continue if Adam stayed in Prince George's County schools: In 2004, Bladensburg, Adam's home high school, had a 66 percent graduation rate, according to the Adequate Yearly Progress report for the year. In the same year, 91 percent of Blair seniors graduated.

The decision was simple: Adam's mother would send him across the county line to Blair. Adam recalls his mother's reasoning: "If I wasn't running around with the kind of people I used to, then I would stay out of trouble and my grades would be better."

So far, she has been right. Every morning at 5:40 a.m., Adam catches a Ride On outside of his Bladensburg home and makes the hour-and-a-half-long journey into Blair's district. The trip may be long, but it is well worth it; since starting at Blair, Adam has avoided his middle-school vices, and his grades have improved.

Like Adam, Lauren, a senior who lives with her grandmother in Kemp Mill, came to Blair seeking a better education. Even though she can catch a Ride On bus and be at Blair in five to seven minutes, her home school is Kennedy. Unlike Brown, however, Lauren never gave her home school a chance: She enrolled in Blair her freshman year after hearing horror stories about frequent fights and widespread drug abuse at Kennedy.

Fighting for a new beginning

Lauren took an easy approach to securing a place at Blair: She simply lied about where she lived. She chose to register at Blair using her mother's Silver Spring address rather than go through the extended process of fighting the school. While her report cards, test scores and other official school mail are still sent to her mother's home, the little fib on her registration form that let her avoid attending Kennedy was well worth some displaced paperwork, she says.

Brown, on the other hand, took the legal route to obtaining a spot at Blair. He and his parents had to fight an extended battle with MCPS in order to get his transfer from Kennedy approved. He tried to register for Blair at the end of his freshman year, but his request was denied because he lived outside of Blair's district. He refused to give up, however. He and his parents appealed the decision to the Montgomery County Residency Office. After weeks of processing, Brown's request was approved, and he transferred to Blair in October of his sophomore year.

Brown's battle with MCPS was the product of an outdated system in which county teenagers were assigned home schools based on where they lived. As of last year, however, efforts like those made by Brown and Lauren to defy their home-school designations became largely unnecessary with the implementation of the Downcounty Consortium (DCC). Under this policy, downcounty students are given a choice of five high schools: Blair, Einstein, Kennedy, Northwood and Wheaton.

Now, according to Hinkle, students can attend any school within the DCC as long as they have at least one tax-paying parent or guardian living in Montgomery County. Therefore, he explains, the Residency Committee is concerned not with cracking down on out-of-district students but rather with investigating whether they pay for the education they get.

Cheating the system

For students like Adam, the answer to that question is no. The property taxes paid by Adam's family benefit Prince George's County Public Schools rather than MCPS, so he is receiving an education from Blair without paying for it. If the school found out where Adam lived, he would be forced to withdraw.

While Hinkle acknowledges that students who live in Prince George's County or Washington, D.C., can often get better educations from MCPS than from their home schools, he points out that their presence at Blair drains resources from the rest of the student body. "We should be able to provide more for [students], but we can't because people come to Blair who shouldn't be here," says Hinkle.

Hinkle estimates that as many as 10 percent of Blazers don't belong at Blair because they either live outside the DCC or outside the county. If his guess is correct, and if all out-of-place students were removed from Blair's approximate population of 3,081 students, the school would be under-enrolled for the first time in decades.

Still, Brown doesn't feel guilty about attending Blair. He believes that starting over at Blair gave him the opportunity to correct the mistakes he made at Kennedy: His grades are now Bs and Cs, and his new friends are positive role models. Blair, he adds, has given him a chance for the future. "I made a turn-around at Blair," says Brown.

Audrey Kubetin. Audrey lives off of tea, tofu and Tool. The end. More »

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