A Tale of Two Montgomerys

As Montgomery County Public Schools become more diverse, our school system is becoming a place of haves and have-nots. But what does that look like from a student’s perspective? We’re excited to share the following essay from Michael Robinson, a 2011 Springbrook graduate and a senior at Yale.

Also, don’t forget to join us for Thursday’s panel discussion on “Leadership and the Achievement Gap” with County Councilmember Craig Rice, Sonja Santelises from the Education Trust, and Dr. Maria Navarro, MCPS Chief Academic Officer. We’ll be at the Silver Spring Civic Building from 7 to 9pm with a meet-and-greet at 6:30pm. For more information, click here.

A Tale of Two Montgomerys
written by Michael Robinson

Springbrook High Sign

As I prepare to graduate from Yale University this spring, there is one peculiar thing that has stood out to me during my time here. Whenever I talk to my fellow graduates from Montgomery County Public Schools, there seem to be two competing views of what the school system is.

Some of my peers have described MCPS as comparable, if not better, to a private school education. I have heard these students talk about how their schools are full of resources, happy teachers, eager students, and an engaged community. Many of these same individuals attended the renowned “W” schools, such as Whitman or Winston Churchill, on the wealthier side of Montgomery County or the magnet program at Blair High School.

My experience with Montgomery County Schools has been, to say the least, slightly different. MCPS gave me the platform and the school environment, coming from a lower socioeconomic background, to have the credentials to get into a college like Yale. But for too many of my similar classmates at Springbrook High School and schools like it, this has not been the case.

Whereas some schools have test scores outpacing the national average, Springbrook struggles to meet these numbers. Whereas some schools have state-of-the-art facilities, my school seemed to be the last to get needed funds for facilities. Whereas some schools in MCPS seek to groom their students into the leaders of tomorrow, others have accepted what one MCPS employee in the Northeast Consortium described to me as the “Baltimorization” of certain schools. One need only revisit the problematic Washington Post article on the Springbrook football program (of which I was a two-year varsity starter) and its acceptance of the use of the ‘n-word’ to understand this point.

In short, many have accepted that the issues at high-needs schools, both academic and behavioral, are unsolvable.

These two opposing viewpoints are both very accurate. For some students in MCPS, schools offer a world-class education, a path for social mobility, or a way to succeed in life. But for other students, the schools are failing to educate them and to aid their success in life. For some, the schools reinforce socioeconomic and racial statistical predictions that they will fail.

How can citizens of our county accept these Two Montgomerys? The business of our schools is to supply educated and prepared students, regardless of race, income, or where they came from. As a first-generation Black American from a low socioeconomic background, I stand in the achievement gap between black and Latino and white and Asian students, and between the rich and the poor. And as this gap grows, my future – the county’s future – is at risk.

There has been much work on the achievement gap, but when is this problem actually going to be solved? Some may say that this is a matter of parents and student personal responsibility. They will point to my academic success and others like me as vindication of their viewpoint. But if one accepts that students from different races or economic statuses were born equal, there can be no disagreement that imbalances in academic achievement are caused by factors outside the individual.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the schools and our public officials to do more to remove these academic barriers—to remove skin color and residential areas as helpful predictors of whether you will pass an AP test, go to college, or simply graduate from high school.

Even if these matters do not invoke you to demand change and bold action, one must consider the economic outcome. If we fail to fix some of the problems in the ‘other’ MCPS, those problems will ripple into other parts of the county. House values may plummet, county budgets may unnecessarily skyrocket causing cuts in other programs, and the whole county may feel the effect. One way or another, these Two Montgomerys will become one.

There are two paths before us. One involves the continued failure of our school system to deal with the economic imperative of doing more for our underserved schools and communities, bringing the whole county down. The other path involves bold action by our system’s leaders and community members to deal with our difficult problems. We need to bring our underserved schools up to par with the entire system and accept nothing less. If MCPS employees, from the school level to the Board of Education level cannot deliver this, we must instate those that can.

The educational experience for a rich white child at Churchill High School should be no different than the experience for a poor black or Latino child at Springbrook High School. If we achieve this, then maybe, when kids from these schools convene at a college like Yale they will no longer tell a tale of Two Montgomerys, but One Montgomery.

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11 Comments on “A Tale of Two Montgomerys”

  1. Tina Connolly says:

    Well said! I wholeheartedly agree.

  2. A. White says:

    Great points, and well said. My eloquent last post got deleted, so to summarize: as a former MCPS employee, I think the pressure of closing the achievement gap is actually part of the problem. The focus on passing grades, making AYP (or whatever it’s called each passing year), and reducing suspensions for high FARMs/high minority schools just leads to inflated grades and lack of discipline. There is no way to take students who are entering kindergarten below grade level without an academically supportive home environment and get them on grade level by giving them the same exact academic program as on-level students and just pasting some interventions on like band aids. Yes, many students legitimately need help and use the resources, but many others know there’s no need to work hard when there are endless retakes and you’ll get pulled out of class to work one-on-one and get make up work if you’re failing. Most of the year, 90% of the intervention energy/time is used by 10% of the class.

    MCPS loves to flaunt its diversity when it’s convenient, but it needs to actually be diverse in its management of individual schools and their performance.

  3. 2004 MCPS Graduate says:

    I do agree with the claim that some schools in MCPS have better resources (teachers etc.) than others and that can make a big difference in education. I disagree that it is entirely the county’s responsibility though for a student’s poor performance. The county should absolutely aim to hire better teachers and provide resources to schools that are hurting, however, a student’s education is also his/her own responsibility as well and I feel it is this lack of responsibility for their own future that truly hurts the students.

    I came from a non-white lower socioeconomic background as well (parents were not college educated) as did many of my peers and friends. The single most significant difference I saw while I was a student in MCPS was that the students who succeeded took responsibility and pride in their education while the one’s who did not succeed seemed to not care and not do their work and then complained when they didn’t learn and earned bad grades.

    You state that the good schools in MCPS are “full of resources, happy teachers, eager students, and an engaged community.” This was true for my school for the most part ( I did not attend a “W” school as you referred to in your article.) 3 out of those 4 things though are directly linked to the students and parents and not the county. Eager students is obviously on the students. Engaged community is also obviously on the students and their families. Happy teachers are a result of having students that are eager to learn. Teachers will not be happy if they have to babysit trouble makers or break-up daily fights between unruly and rowdy students.

    Ultimately it is the responsibility of the students (with their parent’s support) to be successful. I have lived it first hand and have seen lack of responsibility as the main culprit.

  4. Joshua Ivaldi says:

    The issue on the income gap should be approached -independently- of racial issues. It’s too easy for people to forget that there is such a thing as a “poor white” population, facing the same issues as low-income minorities, but still held to the standard that they are “better off” by society. Thus, leaving them in the dirt when scholarships and financial aid is put in place to help “Low income minorities.”

  5. What has happened to my school?!? We used to be one of the top ranked schools in not only Montgomery County but the entire state of Maryland, public or private. What went wrong? What have they done to my old school?
    Springbrook Alum Class of 84

  6. Awesome article! I’d love to have a conversation with you on how we can fix this problem of high-need schools at the Board level (I’m running for SMOB).

    Feel free to contact me through Facebook.

  7. MT says:

    Nicely written. The issue are multi-layered and not just a problem at the school level. Congratulations on graduating and good luck with the next step in your life.

  8. C. Kinder says:

    Excellent!!

  9. Chuck Rhinemann says:

    What an eloquent and well written commentary. I personally experienced the “two Montgomerys” you describe. But while I agree with the premise, I am afraid the solution may – if not forever – at least be a very long way away. “But if one accepts that students from different races or economic statuses were born equal, there can be no disagreement that imbalances in academic achievement are caused by factors outside the individual.” It is not PC to say it, but no, they are not born equal. Even students from the same trace and economic status are not born equal. Even different kids of the same parents are not born equal. There are innate abilities in every child and the school system’s job is to nurture and grow these abilities. It is also the job of the family, and the student. Many times the student can excel with the support of one or the other; often it requires both. But to pretend all kids are born “equal” in their abilities and future promise ignores reality.

  10. Reblogged this on unfettered equality and commented:
    Here’s a great article from Michael Robinson, a Yale senior and graduate of Montgomery County Public Schools, on the disparities he witnessed in the school system:

  11. Jacqueline Robbins says:

    Michael’s article presents a truth that many of us are aware of within the system, but many who are in power and government are ignorant of…there is still one Montgomery County and it is a growing beast of wealth. Until we recognize this growing divide we are doomed to fail. We must start dividing the county into the haves and the have nots and treating those systems differently…putting different supports in place for children who have parents who are working 2 and 3 jobs and who can’t attend meetings, children who have parents who are ill or drug addicted, children who have been moved so many times that their world is contained in a box or a garbage bag. Until we recognize that we need funding for more teachers, more counselors, more psychologists and PPWs, and more after school programs that tap into other talents besides academic ones, we will remain Two Montgomerys.


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