Elementary-Age Students in Rockville Get New School Assignments

Elementary-Age Students in Rockville Get New School Assignments

Board finalizes attendance map for new elementary school, four existing schools

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The school board Monday night approved a new attendance map for elementary school students in Rockville.

Via Montgomery County Board of Education

A map that took weeks to finalize, sparked community debate about student poverty rates and cost at least one school board member some sleep finally won approval on Monday night.

The attendance plan will bring students from Beall, Ritchie Park and College Gardens elementary schools to the new Rockville elementary school, scheduled to open in September 2018. The proposal will leave untouched the boundaries for Twinbrook Elementary School, where student reassignments could’ve jeopardized the school’s Title I status. This federal designation makes schools with high student poverty levels eligible for additional financial assistance.

The school board’s split vote for the attendance map dubbed “Alternative B” followed a couple of failed attempts to adopt two of the other four plans that were up for discussion Monday.

“I’ve lost a lot of sleep over this … because I do know how important it is to everyone, and you don’t want to make a wrong decision,” board member Rebecca Smondrowski said, declaring her support for “Alternative A.”

The five plans differed in their distribution of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and in the way they divvy up Rockville communities.

A number of audience members held signs advocating for the “A” option, which supporters have said does the best job of keeping neighborhoods together. Other parent advocates have argued for the option known as “Alternative E” because it would more evenly spread low-income students between the elementary schools in the study area.

Some parents pushed back against the initial boundary recommendation that Superintendent Jack Smith brought forward in October. They objected that the percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price meals—often called the FARMS rate and used as a poverty measure—would be too high at the new elementary school. Smith later scrapped his proposal after mistakes were found in the underlying calculations.

School board members have affirmed the importance of creating diverse student bodies, but have worried about implying that schools with high poverty levels are lower performing or have lower standards.

Board member Shebra Evans voiced this concern when explaining her opposition after her colleague, Jeanette Dixon, suggested reassigning 75 FARMS students from Twinbrook to other schools.

“I just don’t like the idea of sprinkling our kids around and the message that we’re conveying about kids on free and reduced-price meals,” she said.

Dixon’s amendment failed to win support from other board members. She said her proposal was aimed at promoting equity and wasn’t a negative statement about FARMS students.

During the boundary-setting process, board members went on a bus tour of the Richard Montgomery Cluster. Dixon said she later visited each of the four existing elementary schools that would be affected.

In the end, “Alternative B” was adopted with support from five board members—Dixon, Evans, Pat O’Neill, Judy Docca and Michael Durso.

Board member Jill Ortman-Fouse and student board member Matt Post, both of whom had supported “Alternative E,” voted against the “B” option.

Smondrowski abstained, later explaining that she did so because the winning map was her second choice, not her first.

This model reassigns some Beall and Ritchie Park students to the new elementary school at 332 W. Edmonston Drive. A Chinese immersion program at College Gardens will move to the school under the final map. In addition, some College Gardens students will shift to Beall.

“I think ‘Alternative B’ did a better job of balancing the capacity enrollment in the schools in the Richard Montgomery cluster,” O’Neill said Tuesday.

The school board adopted "Alternative B" as the attendance map for elementary schools in the Richard Montgomery cluster (click to expand). Via Montgomery County Public Schools.

Larry Giammo, president of the West End Citizens Association, said he was disappointed by the board’s decision. Most people in his community wanted “Alternative A” because they believed it respected community lines.

“I think there wasn’t much consideration for neighborhood cohesiveness and personal connectedness,” Giammo, a former Rockville mayor, said of the board’s final decision.

Giammo also criticized Montgomery County Public Schools staff for some of the data errors that came up during the boundary-drawing process and said it was difficult to trust information coming from the school district.

School spokesman Derek Turner said the mistakes in numbers in Smith’s first proposal were “very unfortunate.” However, he noted that the five final alternatives were made public about two weeks before the vote.

O’Neill said the community’s concerns about the accuracy of enrollment projections were one reason she offered a proposal directing the superintendent to re-evaluate the area’s capacity needs after five years or if an elementary school needs more than four portables. Board members approved the measure.

For most schools, the boundary change will affect students in kindergarten through fourth grade in September 2018. Students in fifth grade could stay at the elementary school they attended in previous years.

However, the changes will apply differently at College Gardens Elementary School, which runs the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. At that school, students in grades 3 through 5 as of September 2018 can stay at College Gardens to complete the program. Younger students would be reassigned.

All students in the Chinese immersion program will be reassigned in September.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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