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Educationby Fern Shen8:42 amAug 19, 20150

As boundary overhaul looms, Mosbys’ out-of-zone school choice is questioned

Sending their daughter to a school in Mt. Washington rather than their District 7 neighborhood, the choice made by a Baltimore power couple personifies a tough city issue

Above: The Mosby family at their Reservoir Hill home in West Baltimore, as shown in one of Marilyn Mosby’s campaign brochures.

City Councilman Nick Mosby and his wife, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, often reference their West Baltimore neighborhood to convey their personal connection to the city’s struggles.

“I looked at the open-air drug market and the trash in the streets and the number of vacant houses on the street and I’m like, ‘You’re crazy,’” Marilyn Mosby said to the New York Times, describing her first glimpse of Reservoir Hill where they live in a onetime-vacant brick rowhouse.

But the couple does not send their older daughter to any of the public schools in the 7th District that Nick Mosby represents on the Council – including the John Eager Howard Elementary School less than two blocks from their house.

The seven-year-old instead attends a city public school about five miles away, The Mount Washington School (formerly the Mt. Washington Elementary School) located in a leafy, affluent pocket of Northwest Baltimore.

They are hoping to get their younger daughter into kindergarten at the Mount Washington School as well.

Asked why he shuns his own district schools and sends his children so far from his neighborhood, Mosby said, “It’s not that far, it’s just 10 minutes on 83.”

But how did their daughter, Nylyn, get a coveted spot in Mount Washington, which is 118% over capacity and has a waiting list that stretches to seven pages.

“We waited on the waiting list, and she got in,” Nick Mosby said, speaking to The Brew.

A photo Nick Mosby posted showing him and his daughter at a March school event got 500

A photo with his daughter that Nick Mosby posted from a March school event has 500+ “likes.” (Source: Mt. Washington PTO Facebook)

According to the rules as described by City Schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster, such a transfer shouldn’t happen.

“If a school is over capacity, we will not approve a transfer there regardless of the reason for the request,” House-Foster said, when asked to explain the policy for K-5 schools listed on City Schools’ website.

That policy appears to contradict the process that the Mount Washington School follows for kindergarten admission – a class waiting list process Mosby said the family simply followed. School administrators at Mount Washington said they could not comment.

Shannon Wilk, a city school parent who said she heard about the Mosbys’ school choice from other parents, emailed Nick Mosby to ask him to explain his decision.

“Don’t you believe in your district, and the school in your neighborhood?” she wrote. “It would seem that your family would be a welcome addition to your neighborhood school.”

She said she never got back a reply from the councilman.

Plan to Revise Zones

The school system’s handling of transfer requests is under scrutiny by parents, as well as city leaders and educators, as Baltimore embarks on the first comprehensive overhaul of school boundary lines in years.

Currently 33% of the zoned elementary/K-8 schools have a utilization rate greater than 100%, and 11% have a utilization rate less than 65%, according to an RFP for a rezoning study approved by the school board in May.

As part of schools’ overhaul of dilapidated infrastructure – the $1 billion “21st Century Building Plan” – there is a need to “address over and underutilized schools as well as other factors,” the RFP says.

The study will look at demographics and enrollment data and deliver several options that will be publicly reviewed.

It’s a high-stakes and likely contentious issue as Baltimore confronts the structural problems exposed by the April riots involving poverty, race and the city’s long history of housing segregation.

A Tale of Two Schools

Officials have said the process is complex and comprehensive, but it’s hard not to see this as the Tale of Two Schools.

Like many city schools, John Eager Howard has a student body that is poor and more than 90% African-American, and struggles with low achievement and test scores.

Mount Washington’s student body is less demographically lopsided; student scores on state-mandated tests are consistently in the 90’s.

The Mount Washington School. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Above, the Mount Washington School and, below. the John Eager Howard School. (Photos by Fern Shen)

John Eager Howard Elementary School in  Reservoir Hill. (Photo by Fern Shen)

John Eager Howard Elementary School in Reservoir Hill. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The re-zoning plan and out-of-zone transfers have already become a hot-button issue for parents in places like Roland Park and Mount Washington, as well as some schools in Southeast Baltimore, as enrollment and class sizes there have risen.

“The parents and the school had a big meeting about it at the end of the [school] year,” said Wilk, who said her children attend Roland Park Elementary and last year were in classes of 32 and 33 students, above the district average.

“We wondered, what is the process for people to come in here? Do you have to know somebody? It’s very murky,” she said. “If they would just enforce their existing policy maybe they wouldn’t need to do this rezoning.”

Crowded, Coveted

Wilk said school officials told her their family would never be approved to transfer to Roland Park from outside the zone because, like Mount Washington, Roland Park has a greater-than-100% utilization rate. (The school gets hundreds of transfer requests, an enrollment official said at a meeting Wilk attended with other parents.)

Playing by the rules, Wilk said, the couple bought a pricier house just inside the Roland Park school boundary line and took a financial hit.

Across the city, parents frustrated with their neighborhood schools try to move their children to better ones.

“We are church people, we raised him in the church,” said Olga Garcia, one of the parents who crowded a waiting room at City Schools headquarters on North Avenue last Friday, the final day to file paperwork for a transfer.

She was trying to get her 15-year-old son out of Mervo, near her Northeast Baltimore home, and into Poly where she thought there would be a better school climate and academics.

Groups like LiveBaltimore, meanwhile, have been trying to get parents to take a chance on neighborhood schools as a way to stem Baltimore’s population loss and nurture healthier neighborhoods.

“While we’re quick to acknowledge that some schools still struggle, we’ve witnessed others quietly thriving,” says the Way to Stay website, with links to the profiles of some recommended neighborhood schools.

“You Want the Best for Your Child”

Marilyn Mosby has garnered worldwide attention as the prosecutor who charged six city police officers in connection with the death of Freddie Gray. “As young people, our time is now,” she famously said, invoking a bond with the city’s disaffected youth.

Nick Mosby has also been in the spotlight as an impassioned spokesman for the city’s disenfranchised. They are acting out of “decades-old anger, frustration over a system that has failed them,” he said to a Fox News reporter.

During last April’s civil unrest that was centered in his district, Mosby told CNN’s Chris Cuomo, “At the end of the day it’s my neighborhood, it’s my district. It’s critically important for me to be out there.”

In an interview with The Brew, the councilman seemed surprised to be questioned about the couple’s school choice, and said there was no favoritism involved.

What, Mosby was asked, would he say to a parent who had submitted the paperwork to transfer out of a dangerous or under-performing school and been denied?

“I would say it’s important to get the paperwork in on time,” he said.

What of the argument that neighborhood schools need the support of engaged in-zone parents in order to thrive and improve?

“There is so much you can do for children in Baltimore schools, whether you have children in them or not,” Mosby said.

He pointed out that he had just attended a back-to-school backpack event in his district as part of his drive to collect school supplies for 500 city students. “People need to participate, whether it’s mentoring or whatever.”

North Avenue, about a block from John Eager Howard Elementary School. (Photo by Fern Shen)

North Avenue about a block from John Eager Howard Elementary School. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Residential street behind The Mount Washington School. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Along a residential street behind The Mount Washington School. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Why, he was asked, did they choose to send their child to Mount Washington?

“It’s a good school, a Blue Ribbon school,” Mosby said. “You want the best for your child.”

Spaces open up “because people in Mount Washington send their children to private school,” he said, noting that there are others in his district who send their children there.

He added, “People have been doing it in Baltimore for years.”

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