Public To Weigh in on Alternative Attendance Maps for Future Rockville Elementary School
Community concerns, incorrect numbers have complicated boundary-setting process
County education officials have gone back to the drawing board and pulled their calculators back out to redesign attendance maps for a new elementary school in Rockville.
The ongoing effort to decide which neighborhoods should attend Richard Montgomery #5 when it opens in September 2018 has sparked a community debate over poverty levels at local schools. Projections for the original plan presented by Superintendent Jack Smith left some Rockville parents concerned that the new school would have a high rate of children eligible for free or reduced-price meals – often known as the FARMS rate.
Now, school board members are considering five alternative attendance scenarios for Richard Montgomery #5 and College Gardens, Ritchie Park, Twinbrook and Beall elementary schools.
The school board on Tuesday voted to take all five to a public hearing Thursday, but some also expressed concern about some of the undertones they’ve picked up during the ongoing discussion.
“I heard from different people in the community wanting us to be able to dictate where kids go to school, but what we can’t determine is where people purchase their homes,” board member Shebra Evans said. “[W]e can’t pull kids out of school just because you don’t want them there.”
Lok Samson, who’s helping head up the Hungerford effort, said she and her neighbors are simply advocating for promoting diversity at all elementary schools in the cluster, rather than concentrating FARMS students at one or two locations.
“We support a balance of diversity because we believe that it’s important for our children to be exposed to a broad range of people,” she said.
Under the five scenarios now on the table, the FARMS percentage at the new elementary school ranges between 17.5 and 29.4 percent.
Advocates from the Hungerford and New Mark Commons neighborhoods have pressed the for a rate of about 25 percent at most elementary schools in the cluster, arguing that this FARMS level would lead to a more diverse student body and prevent poverty concentrations. They’ve pointed to studies suggesting that lower-income students do better if they attend schools with FARMS rates below a certain threshold.
Of the five options now up for debate, Samson said her group supports “Alternative E,” which she said promotes walkability and diversity at the cluster’s elementary schools. Under this option, some students from Beall and Ritchie Park would be reassigned to the new school, along with a Chinese Immersion Program.
Initially, estimates showed the superintendent’s recommendation would yield a FARMS rate of about 41.5 percent at the new elementary school, now under construction at 332 W. Edmonston Drive. Other schools, Beall, College Gardens and Ritchie Park, would have rates of 10 to 17 percent, according to the staff’s calculation.
After this proposal was presented in October, Montgomery County Public Schools staff members discovered an error in the FARMS projections, and Smith withdrew his recommendation.
“I wouldn’t have selected it had I known the numbers were wrong,” Smith said.
School board members have pushed back against the implication that higher levels of student poverty result in lower-quality schools. Smith has noted that the schools with FARMS rates of about 30 percent or higher receive additional resources from the county.
Andre Dahlman, who is helping to lead the New Mark Commons effort, said he understands that community members are entering touchy territory by urging MCPS to reconsider the boundary lines. He also acknowledged that some community members haven’t expressed themselves with sensitivity as they advocate for reducing the anticipated FARMS rate at the new school.
Still, Dahlman said the school board has listened and responded to parents’ feedback.
Board member Jeanette Dixon said she and her colleagues are duty-bound to consider what’s best for all children in MCPS.
“Every parent, no matter what race, religion, background, gender, sexual orientation … wants nothing but the best education for their child,” she said. “But we have to understand that we have a responsibility to all children and to ensure that all children have opportunities to get the best education that is possible.”
The school system assembled a boundary committee that met earlier this year to consider eight attendance options for Richard Montgomery #5, but at the time, the school was only being built with room for 602 students. MCPS later decided to increase its opening capacity to 740 students. The five new alternatives take this change into account.
The community response, erroneous estimates and expanded project have combined to complicate the boundary study process, officials said Tuesday. However, the board is still on track to adopt a final map Nov. 27.
Five proposed attendance maps for elementary schools in the Richard Montgomery cluster (click to expand). Credit: MCPS.
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.