Students protest MCPS achievement gap in march on Rockville

March to Close the Gap Rally in Courthouse Square

Several hundred people came to march in protest of the achievement gap in Rockville yesterday.

Several hundred students, teachers and school administrators, parents, and local officials marched on Rockville yesterday in a call to close the growing achievement gap between white and Asian and black and Hispanic students in Montgomery County Public Schools.

The Minority Scholars Program, a student-driven initiative to close the achievement gap, began organizing the march several months ago. The group began at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda eight years ago as a way to reach out to minority students, and has since expanded to 10 other high schools in the county, including Northwood, Springbrook, and Wheaton. Organizers say the program has “data to support its success” in increasing the academic eligibility and honor roll placement of minority students.

About 400 people marched from the Carver Center, once the county’s black high school under segregation and now the MCPS central office, down Rockville Pike and North Washington Street. Students chanted and held signs with slogans like “Close the Gap,” as drivers honked their horns in approval. The march ended at Courthouse Square for a festive rally on the steps of the county courthouse with music and dancing.

Organizers hope the march will raise awareness about the achievement gap and spur the community to action. “For years, we have been watching and waiting and hoping and wishing for something to change,” said Mike Williams, a teacher at Walter Johnson who helped start the Minority Scholars Program.

Marchers on Rockville Pike as Dr. Starr (left) takes a photo.

Marchers on Rockville Pike as Dr. Starr (left) takes a photo.

Several MCPS and Montgomery County officials participated in the march and subsequent rally, including school board president Phil Kauffman and superintendent Joshua Starr, who tweeted selfies with the crowd and even briefly danced with MSP members on stage. “We care about you and we love you,” he said. “Everything we are doing is about how we can work harder to close the gap.”

Speakers during the rally made repeated comparisons to other youth movements in history, from the East Los Angeles Walkouts in 1968 to the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa. Tim Warner, Chief Engagement and Partnership Officer for MCPS, urged the students to offer their input and ideas. “You are the solution…you are what Montgomery County looks like today and you are our leaders,” he said. “You all need to tell us what to do.”

Student leader Gabi Bianchi called the march “the beginning of a revolution to close the achievement gap,” adding, “We have been heard.” She said the Minority Scholars Program will advocate for “institutional changes” at the federal, state, and county levels to give students and schools the resources they need to succeed.

That will be a challenge for the organization. School officials acknowledge that minority students are lagging their peers, and MCPS does have many good programs in place to help close the gap. But the achievement gap continues to grow and appears to be a direct result of de facto racial and socioeconomic segregation in MCPS.

Yet in recent months, Dr. Starr has both rejected a recent report from the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight about the achievement gap, while Starr and Kauffman both threatened to cut funding for additional programs to close the gap if the school system didn’t get a raise in their budget from the county. These actions really raise questions about the school system’s commitment.

Yesterday’s march was a great day for the Minority Scholars Project and for all of the hard-working students and staff who made it happen. But we all have to hold MCPS leaders accountable for their promises to listen to the community’s concerns and make the school system more equitable for all students.

Check out this slideshow of the march.

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Washington Post calls on MCPS to get serious about the achievement gap

Attacking the Achievement GapLast week, the Office of Legislative Oversight issued a report that Montgomery County Public Schools are increasingly becoming a system of haves and have-nots. In response, the Washington Post editorial board called on school officials and superintendent Joshua Starr to get serious about the achievement gap and make programs for disadvantaged students a priority:

The entrenchment of a two-tier system of have and have-not schools is troubling. Without a doubt, some demographic forces are beyond the control of school officials, and some demographic changes occurred faster than expected. And the achievement gap is neither new nor unique to Montgomery. But given the promising progress made in previous years in attacking the gap, particularly under the sustained focus of former superintendent Jerry Weast, the stagnation now is alarming.

Joshua P. Starr, who took over as superintendent from Mr. Weast in 2011, seems to have directed his efforts elsewhere — deemphasizing standardized tests, for example, and urging more “hopefulness” and innovation in education. He acknowledged to us that the system’s efforts in attacking the achievement gap have been akin to “treading water” in recent years, but he said that is not for lack of commitment or interest…

We hope Mr. Starr will recommit the system to this cause.

You can read the rest of the editorial here.


Montgomery County schools are segregating, but Starr won’t admit it

A new report says that Montgomery County schools are becoming segregated by income, race, and ethnicity and that “white flight” is occurring in the system’s lowest-performing schools. But officials deny that it’s even happening.

Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville. A new study says that Montgomery County schools are becoming segregated by class and race.

This week, the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight released their findings on the achievement gap in Montgomery County Pubic Schools. Researchers note that low-income, black, and Latino students are still trailing their more affluent, white, and Asian peers, but even more so now that both groups are increasingly concentrated in different parts of the school system.

While MCPS as a whole is a majority-minority school system and has been for over a decade, most low-income, black, and Latino students attend one of 11 high schools, mostly in Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Gaithersburg. Meanwhile, higher-income students, as well as 80% of the school system’s white students and 67% of its Asian students, now cluster at schools on the western side of the county.

Read the rest of this entry »


High-needs students should be a priority regardless of MCPS’ budget

County Executive Ike Leggett’s $4.9 billion 2015 budget is out today. Included is a proposal to give MCPS $2.08 billion, an increase of $80 million from the previous year.

However, it’s still $15 million less than the school system asked for. In a letter to Leggett, Superintendent Joshua Starr and school board president Phil Kauffman say the difference between their request and his proposal would affect programs for high-needs students:

“Those funds were specifically targeted to benefit our most vulnerable students by, among other things, reducing class sizes in high-need high schools, improving services to English Language Learners, adding prekindergarten classes, expanding community partnerships that serve students and families, and hiring more counselors and student support staff.”

Over half of the school system’s low-income students are in the Northeast and Downcounty consortia and in a handful of Upcounty clusters, Gaithersburg, Seneca Valley, and Watkins Mill. These schools aren’t performing as well as those in more affluent parts of the county, because their students come with greater needs.

Closing the achievement gap between these schools and the rest of MCPS is integral to our school system’s and our county’s continued success. That means making programs to serve high-needs students a priority no matter what.

Some of the programs Dr. Starr has recommended to serve these schools sound promising. But MCPS already makes up nearly half of the county’s total budget, and our highest-need students shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip to raise the school system’s budget.


Minority, low-income students lag peers in AP exam participation

Last month, Montgomery County Public Schools announced that high school students had taken a record number of Advanced Placement exams, which allow them to receive college credit. But as with many measures of success in the school system, there remains a huge gap in performance between minority and low-income students and their counterparts. Our own Fred Stichnoth breaks down the results in a letter to the Gazette:

Today, very roughly, the proportion of MCPS AP exams taken by blacks and Hispanics is only half their representation among MCPS high school students; and the proportion of 3 or higher scores earned by blacks and Hispanics is only a third their representation among MCPS high school students.

The proportions are worse for students in poverty: their proportion of MCPS’ exams is only a quarter of their proportion of MCPS high school students; and their proportion of tests scored 3 or higher is only a fifth of their representation in MCPS high schools.

In MCPS’ celebratory Dec. 6 announcement “MCPS Students Take a Record Number of AP Exams,” Dr. Joshua Starr pronounces himself “very pleased.” His “there are still significant gaps” is merely an increasingly common, fine print, boilerplate add-on.

The superintendent’s comparison of black and Hispanic performance in MCPS to that in the state and nation is a bit like comparing Division I to Division III: It ignores the superior resources at MCPS’ disposal and MCPS’ Core Value commitment to closing the gaps among its own students.

Montgomery County Public Schools is known as one of the best school systems in the country. But we can’t hold on to that reputation if we hold different groups of students to different standards.