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.


One Montgomery announces endorsements for the 2014 primary election

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 21, 2014

Contact: Dan Reed
ph: 202/256-7238
onemontschools@gmail.com

One Montgomery announces candidate endorsements for 2014 primary elections in Montgomery County, Maryland.

One Montgomery endorses the following local candidates for the June 24th primary elections in Montgomery County:

one montgomery stickerOrganized in 2013, One Montgomery is a grassroots organization of parents, teachers, and community members in Montgomery County that is dedicated to public school improvement as a means for creating a stronger community. The group seeks a school system committed to school equity, transparency, collaboration, and accountability.

A recent report on school performance by Montgomery County’s Office of Legislative Oversight shows that the achievement gap in county schools has grown in recent years, particularly within the Northeast and Downcounty consortia. Because geographical boundaries almost always determine school assignments, school quality is closely tied to neighborhood stability and the health of our local economy.

As a result, Montgomery County Public Schools needs to dedicate adequate staffing and programs for high-needs schools to ensure high-performing schools in all parts of the county. One Montgomery has produced a set of recommendations for ways MCPS can do that, using feedback from community workshops and education forums it has organized or participated in over the past year.

Candidates endorsed by One Montgomery have records of community and political activism that prove their commitment to closing the achievement gap. Legislative and council endorsements were made based on candidate questionnaires, interviews, and public statements. For school board endorsements, One Montgomery teamed with a Takoma Park education group to interview candidates.

For further information on One Montgomery, visit its website or Facebook page. Follow One Montgomery on Twitter @onemontschools, or join One Montgomery’s listserv. One Montgomery can be contacted at onemontschools@gmail.com.

See our sample ballot below. Click here or on the ballot for a printable copy.

one montgomery ballot_front


East County and Downcounty students took fewer AP exams in 2013

Students in Montgomery County Public Schools made some gains on the Advanced Placement exams last year, which allow students to earn college credit. But in East County and Downcounty schools, test participation and scores have fallen, in some cases dramatically.

Northeast and Downcounty consortia students are taking fewer Advanced Placement exams.

Northeast and Downcounty consortia students are taking fewer Advanced Placement exams.

Last week, the College Board released its Advanced Placement test scores for 2013. In a memo to the Board of Education, Superintendent Joshua Starr said that the Class of 2013 “continued to maintain the high rates of participation and performance” on AP exams and claimed that “MCPS high schools continued to support AP exam participation and performance of minority graduates,” noting that many schools saw increased numbers of black and Hispanic students taking the exams.

But the actual data isn’t as encouraging. Across MCPS, 66% of the class of 2013 took AP exams, a small decrease from the previous year, when 67.3% of graduates took the exams. Meanwhile, the percentage of black and Hispanic students taking AP exams fell. 39.6% of black students and 51.6% of Hispanic students sat for the exams in 2013, compared to 43% and 54.2%, respectively.

AP participation rates decreased at all three Northeast Consortium high schools, Blake, Paint Branch, and Springbrook, and four out of the five Downcounty Consortium high schools, Einstein, Kennedy, Northwood, and Wheaton. At Einstein, the percentage of students taking AP exams fell from 61.2% to 50%, a difference of 11 points. At Wheaton, it fell from 66.7% to 58.9%, a difference of 9 points. 57.8% of graduates took the exams at Blair High School, an increase of one point from the previous year.

Students at consortia schools also aren’t performing as well. The percentage of students scoring 3 or more on AP exams fell at every Northeast and Downcounty consortia high school except for Blair. (AP exams are graded on a 5-point scale, with 5 being the highest score.) At Springbrook, it fell 7 points, from 28.7% in 2012 to 21.7% in 2012.

Participation among black and Hispanic students has fallen as well. The percentage of black students sitting for the AP exam fell from 50.7% to 32.9% at Einstein, a difference of 18 points. At Northwood, it fell 12 points from 52.4% to 40.2%, and at Paint Branch, it fell from 49.5% to 40.7%. Meanwhile, the rate increased 4 points at Springbrook, from 33.7% to 37.3%, and 1 point at Blake, from 35.4% to 36.6%. And the percentage of Hispanic students taking the exams fell 10 points at Springbrook, 8 points at Blake, Einstein, and Wheaton, and 7 points at Kennedy.

White students are also taking fewer AP exams across the consortia. The percentage fell 13 points at Wheaton, 9 points at Northwood, 8 points at Kennedy, and 3 points at Blake. But the rate of white students sitting for AP exams did increase 17 points at Paint Branch.

Meanwhile, schools on the western side of the county are doing better than ever. Black and Hispanic students took more tests, and received more high scores, at Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Rockville, and Poolesville high schools.

Later this month, the College Board will release data for the state of Maryland and the nation as a whole, allowing us to see how our students compete on a state and national level. AP scores are just one measurement of student performance, and not always the best one. But they do indicate a growing achievement gap within Montgomery County Public Schools, which is not only hurting our students, but our communities as well.


Residents come together at workshop

The crowd at our first community workshop at Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Colesville. Photo by Dan Reed.

The crowd at our first community workshop at Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Colesville. Photo by Dan Reed.

Last Thursday, approximately 40 activist parents and residents came together for One Montgomery’s first community workshop at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Colesville. Reporters from the student and professional press were there as well.

People discussed issues affecting Montgomery County schools in breakout sessions. Photo by Adrienne Lees.

People discussed issues affecting Montgomery County schools in breakout sessions. Photo by Adrienne Lees.

Following time for initial greetings, the interrelated issues of residential and school socio-economic segregation, underfunding of schools with concentrated poverty and school academic underperformance were presented through PowerPoint pictures, words and graphs.

Workshop participants separated into groups to discuss and later present the strengths and weakness and opportunities and threats characterizing our schools; and the causes of and solutions for our current situation. The groups’ findings are outlined below.

The meeting concluded with observations regarding the political nature of school improvement. Change will require formation of an active community and its insistent communication of the request for change.

What are our schools’ present strengths and weaknesses?

Strengths

1. New facilities
2. Every school has honors and AP programs
3. Strong principals at individual schools (e.g., Blair and Springbrook)
4. Some strong PTAs engaging parents with cultural barriers
5. Diversity

Weaknesses

1. Politics for resource distribution
2. Weak community engagement
3. Wide gap in scores across individual schools
4. Cultural misconceptions of students within school (e.g., withheld opportunities, more minorities with suspensions)
5. Public perception that schools are bad – middle class flight

What opportunities and threats do our schools face in the future?

Opportunities

1. Increase SAT scores and graduation rates
2. Strong leadership: Maryland-school-community
3. Safety—a priority
4. Maintenance of effort—increase base funding
5. Reputation of success of school
6. Better branding
7. Good social interaction
8. More libraries/music programs: allow leadership opportunities for students
9. Head Start/Pre-K
10 Build on diversity for global citizens
11. Language, tech

Threats

1. More violence
2. People move out of neighborhoods
3. Economic vulnerability
4. Imbalance – population growth
5. Continuing low level of involvement by parents
6. Perception and reality of inequalities
7. Can’t increase enrollment without parent involvement
8. Middle schools lose ability to meet student needs
9. Bad branding – identify issues and make adjustments

What are the causes of current issues in our schools?

1. Economic disparities

a. Demographic changes to economy
b. Consortium maintains economic status quo
c. Correlation between race proportions and economic opportunity

2. Cultural differences

a. Not understanding differences in students, unique needs
b. Staff cultural competency

3. Continual staff training; necessary supports

4. Standardized testing teaching vs. engagement in learning

5. Home life

a. Lack of wrap around service
b. Lack of early childhood education
c. Lack of resources to support and advocate

What are some possible solutions for improving our schools?

1. Greater access for Head-Start: advocate for funds
2. Advocate for resources from Annapolis for our County
3. Volunteer program from qualified high school students, local colleges/universities
4. Solutions aren’t necessarily easy
5. Alternative programs for students with behavior problems
6. Stop changing the curriculum
7. Formula needs to match needs of the school; fair does not mean equal
8. Candid communication between MCPS and community
9. Greater resources for high needs schools
10. Proactive with population trends

Group Members

Strengths,Weaknesses Opportunities,Threats Causes Solutions
Facilitator Debbie Ed All Ralph
Scribe Stephanie Stephanie Dee Evelyn
Time keeper Thalia Jewru Rosina Lulu
Presenter Bernice Core Jay Jill
Members Dan David TeddySharon Fred Kyle Otto BobAdrienne Josh Evan AdamDiana Neal Mark, Ann