A report released Monday on special academic programs in Montgomery County public schools suggested changes to increase access to those programs for minority students and students from low-income families.
The 206-page report from New York-based research firm Metis Associates has been anticipated by some—including members of the Board of Education—concerned with perceived inequity in the school system when it comes to access to gifted and talented magnet programs, language immersion programs and other academically selective programs. The board commissioned the study in January 2015.
“I know this report has been eagerly anticipated by many in the community and also by our board,” board President Michael Durso said before a presentation of the report at Tuesday’s board meeting. “This really is the first step in a new phase of this work.”
The report includes eight findings and 11 recommendations. Joshua Civin, general counsel for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), said school system staff plans to formulate a response plan to the report by May.
MCPS will hold three “community dialogues” about the report: April 6 at Gaithersburg High School, April 18 at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring and May 5 at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.
Metis researchers visited county schools with choice and special academic programs last fall and conducted interviews and focus groups with teachers, parents and students to put together the report. During the 2013-2014 school year, there were 43 school choice and special academic programs spread across 36 county schools that served about 22,700 students—about 15 percent of the school district’s entire enrollment.
Metis found that information about gifted and talented magnet programs and other programs is “not reaching segments of the community, namely Hispanic/Latino, Black/African American, non-English speaking, and low-income families as well as [it is] to other groups” and that “there are significant racial and socioeconomic disparities in the enrollment and acceptance rates to academically selective programs, which suggest a need to revise the criteria.”
The study suggested MCPS changes its selection criteria for elementary and middle school magnet programs “to focus these programs on selecting equitably from among those applicants that demonstrate a capacity to thrive in the program,” which could include non-academic criteria such as “motivation or persistence.”
The study also suggested a major change to the school system’s student transfer policy, which Metis researchers wrote “does not fully align with MCPS’s goal to provide equitable access to choice and special academic programs.”
It cited a provision of the transfer policy that allows a younger sibling of a student admitted to an elementary school language immersion program to automatically enroll in that same program.
The study showed that almost a third of all students admitted to elementary language immersion programs were siblings and in one school’s case, the “sibling link” was as high as 45 percent of the students.
“The sibling link hinders equity of access for non-siblings because it reduces the total number of seats that are available,” the study said. It recommended the school system change its transfer policy so sibling admittance into the language immersion programs isn’t automatic.
The study found the school system’s two high school consortia—in which students in the eastern part of the county can choose a high school outside of their assigned area for signature programs—hasn’t had much of an impact when it comes to increasing opportunities for students from lower-income families. It suggested the school system could open up the consortia to students from a wider geographic area.
It also found the overall demand for choice and special academic programs exceeds the supply of seats in those programs. About half of all applicants for the language immersion programs are placed on a waitlist each year and in 2013-2014, only 18 percent of applicants to elementary school magnet programs, 26 percent of applicants to middle school magnets and 37 percent of applicants to high school magnets and other special programs got in.
In a memo introducing the report, Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers wrote it “rightly challenges us to rethink and reimagine some of our long-standing practices and programs to ensure they reflect our core values.”
It was unclear from the board’s discussion of the report Tuesday if it would result in changes.
In an interview with Bethesda Beat on Monday, Chief Academic Officer Maria Navarro said she appreciated the report because it provides an in-depth look at the school system’s choice programs.
Civin said the school system must consider how any changes to its school choice selection criteria or transfer policy impacts school capacity and the budget. The growing school system of more than 156,000 students is expected to reach 165,000 students by 2020 and many of its schools are already overcrowded or face the prospect of overcrowding.
“I think [the report] recognized this, but we need to think about what are the implications to changes to a particular program on the availability of seats,” Civin said.
Board member Chris Barclay said during Tuesday’s meeting he agreed with the report’s conclusion that the school system needs to increase its outreach to parents of minority students about the existence of the special academic programs.
“In this region, that unfortunately is very addicted to power and ranking, there is a reality of folks wanting to be on top or have more than others,” Barclay said. “How are we going to have this conversation so it’s not just again the usual suspects that end up knowing everything and then end up being able to leverage their knowledge to being able to get what they want for their children.”