Between 2017 and 2018, the pool of students considered for invitation to magnet programs at Eastern and Takoma Park middle schools nearly tripled in size in an effort to increase diversity in gifted and talented instruction.

The roughly 4,000 fifth-graders tested for the programs hailed from all 80 elementary schools within the magnet catchment areas and better reflected the community demographics than those assessed in past years, Montgomery County Public Schools reports. The result was an increase in magnet invitations to Hispanic and Latino students and students from lower-income families and a slight bump in invitations to black students.

“We really see this work as part of a comprehensive, K-12 attempt to expand opportunity across the board,” said Lori-Christina Webb, an MCPS director who helped lead the project.

The new approach to selecting students for the humanities and communication magnet at Eastern and the math and computer science magnet at Takoma Park is an outgrowth of a 2016 report on access to MCPS special academic programs. The Choice Study offered a wide array of suggestions for offering this enriched instruction more equitably across the school system, and MCPS has already overhauled its process for choosing students for gifted programs in elementary schools. In recent months, MCPS has expanded its reforms to two of its middle school magnets and began developing new courses for gifted students at local schools.

Last week, Montgomery County school board members were briefed on the changes and discussed plans to apply them to all middle school magnet programs over the next year.

Demographic breakdown of students considered last year and this year for magnet programs at Eastern and Takoma Park middle schools. Credit: Montgomery County Public Schools.

Board members said they were pleased to see more students evaluated for the magnets, but some also asked why deepening the pool didn’t ultimately translate into larger changes in the demographic mix of invitees.  

School board member Judy Docca noted that invitations to black students went up “slightly” for the 2018-2019 year when compared to the prior year.

“Why slightly?” she asked.

“That’s a good question,” responded Jeannie Franklin, MCPS director of consortia choice and application program services. “When we compared the data from last year to this year, we were also wondering why it wasn’t a greater gain because we saw the pool … of candidates expand. … So that’s a question that we’re asking.”

The new evaluation process for admission to the magnet programs shifts the burden from parents to the school system. Before, parents had to fill out an application asking MCPS to consider their children for a seat in one of the highly gifted centers. This method disadvantaged students whose parents didn’t know about the process or struggled with the application and benefitted those whose families had the resources to turn in a more polished submission, Webb, MCPS executive director to the chief academic officer, said.

To create a more level playing field, MCPS last year instead checked the educational records of all 8,164 fifth-graders in the Takoma Park and Eastern catchment areas. They identified students who were performing above grade level and notified these parents that—unless they opted out—their children would undergo testing for a magnet.

The results were encouraging, MCPS staff said. The school system tested 3,989 students for the two magnets, compared to 1,405 the prior year.  

“We pulled highly able students from all backgrounds and all elementary schools,” Franklin said in a phone interview.

Under the new process, teachers did not have to complete recommendations for the applicants, and the selection committee responsible for inviting students to the programs did not know the candidates’ names, races or elementary schools. The invitation process previously was race-blind, but the committee members did see students’ names and schools.

MCPS ended up inviting 149 students to the Eastern magnet—compared to 129 for the 2017-2018 school year—and 137 to the Takoma Park magnet—two more than the prior year. The number of invited students who have at any point qualified for free or reduced-price meals more than doubled, rising from 25 to 55. There were also slight increases in invitations to Hispanic or Latino and black students, according to the data.  

MCPS staff said they’ll continue refining the new selection process as they expand it to middle schools countywide for the 2019-2020 academic year.

Data about students invited to magnet programs at Takoma Park and Eastern middle schools (click to expand). Credit: Montgomery County Public Schools.

While the capacity at the two highly gifted centers has only grown slightly, MCPS is trying to serve other advanced students with enriched and accelerated instruction at their home schools. Starting this fall, 20 middle schools within the Takoma Park and Eastern catchment areas will offer at least one of two enriched sixth-grade courses—applied investigations into mathematics and historical inquiries into global humanities.

Middle school principals earlier this year learned which students were assigned to the classes, according to a staff report.

School board member Shebra Evans said she appreciated that more students will be able to participate in this rigorous coursework.

“It really is all about opportunity and access,” she said.

Other board members encouraged MCPS staff to make sure parents are updated on changes as the new selection process expands to other middle school areas.

Communication and transparency were issues raised earlier in the meeting by the chair of the Asian American Parents Student Achievement Action Group.

“As more changes are rolling out … almost every school from elementary to high school and every community will be impacted,” group chair Ting Mei Chau said. The group “strongly urges MCPS and BOE (Board of Education) to consider a more frequent, proactive and planned communication mechanism with communities impacted, so rumors could be cleared, families could be prepared, more community inputs could be provided and together we can make hard changes like this work.”

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at