MCPS leaders ‘troubled’ by potential impact of school closures on achievement gap

MCPS leaders ‘troubled’ by potential impact of school closures on achievement gap

District tackling students’ immediate needs first, then focusing on rigorous classes

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MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith

File photo

For decades, leaders of Montgomery County’s public schools have attempted to narrow a nagging “achievement gap” between students in poverty and their more affluent peers.

There have been countless studies, policy changes, data gathering exercises. New support systems have been put in place to help low-income students, usually minorities.

MCPS has seen some progress — more black and Hispanic students are enrolled in advanced courses now, for example. But, overall, the gap persists. Some trouble areas include graduation rates, dropout rates and students’ achievement in topics such as math and science.

Still, this was the year school leaders felt they were poised to make real, notable progress in closing the gap.

“I would say the goal is really taking all the work we’ve done looking at the data around equity and opportunity and putting them to action in all of our programs and seeing what that looks like,” school spokesman Derek Turner said on the first day of classes in September. “Now that we have all the data, now that we have all the programs, those intersections should happen now and we should start seeing progress.”

But then teaching stopped abruptly in March, threatening to reverse years of progress. The state, and much of the nation, ground to a halt as businesses, recreation facilities and schools were shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19, or the coronavirus.

It’s still too early to tell if those efforts are working — the number of confirmed cases continues to rise every day with no signs of slowing. But national researchers are already clear: When students return to school again, crowding hallways and cafeterias, there will be some learning loss for students and the achievement gap will likely widen.

Some of the key factors that contribute to the achievement gap in the first place, like a lack of internet access at home or parents with limited resources to help their children, are compounded now that learning is happening outside of the traditional classroom setting.

“I think it’s troubling, but I also think that we shouldn’t just decide that right now. We should wait and see,” MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith said, during an interview this week about the possibility of the district’s achievement gap widening. “I know in Montgomery County, we have two interlocking goals, excellence and equity, and we’ve been doing everything we can do for both. … We keep those balanced all the time and it’s my goal that any effect would be mitigated by the work we do as a school system.”

The problem wouldn’t be unique to MCPS, and Smith said the school district’s priority now is adapting to a rapidly changing education world.

Students’ well-being must come first, district spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said in an interview. What good would worksheets, lessons and tests be if students couldn’t focus on their work because they were hungry or unsafe?

So, first, the school district established 20 sites where children younger than 18 and students of all ages can go each day to get breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. The number quickly grew to nearly 50 sites. Making sure students have access to food and basic necessities was the most immediate and pressing issue, Onijala said.

Simultaneously, the central office staff was meeting almost nonstop to develop a plan for continuing education while schools are closed.

There were some major questions, like how to make sure all students have access to a computer and the internet, how to support students with disabilities and what online learning would look like in general.

Last week, MCPS loaned more than 43,000 Chromebook laptops to students who don’t have one at home. Paper copies of coursework are available for students who can’t work online.

‘We don’t want to lose any students throughout this process’

On Monday, after two weeks of emergency closures in which teachers weren’t teaching and students weren’t reporting to classes, the online learning process began.

The first days of the new regimen were set aside for students to get accustomed to the online platforms and reconnect with teachers and classmates. By the end of the week, students were having daily “classroom meetings” and finishing third-quarter assignments.

The second week of classes will include math and literacy lessons for elementary school students while middle and high schoolers start new lessons in their courses.

The state Department of Education last week requested and received a waiver from the federal government to exempt school districts from administering standardized tests this year.

The move takes pressure off local school districts to fit in testing and allows for more flexibility to complete the remainder of the academic year.

It also, however, removes test results, used by schools as a major data point to track student progress and the effectiveness of teaching and curriculum.

MCPS officials have long said that state tests are “just one indicator” of students’ progress. They instead turn to internal tests and data for a more complete picture, activities that will still provide important data, officials said.

Regardless, some of the top education organizations in the world, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, say schools can expect to see students struggling to keep up with normal education standards next year.

Research also suggests schools could see an increase in dropout rates because it will be a struggle to pull some high-risk students back into the traditional school setting when buildings reopen.

In MCPS, Hispanic and Latino students are the most likely to drop out of school.

About 6% of each of the past three years’ graduating class dropped out, data previously obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request show.

In MCPS, students who are part of English as a second language (ESOL) or special education programs are among the most likely to be hurt by a worsening gap in performance while out of the classroom.

In an interview this week, top MCPS officials said they are working to ensure these students have access to the services they need.

ESOL teachers will provide additional language instruction courses through video conferences with students and will meet individually each week with students.

“It’s an expectation those meetings happen,” said Niki Hazel, associate superintendent in the MCPS Office of Curriculum and Instructional Programs. “We don’t want to lose any students throughout this process.”

Special education staff members are working to contact families of each student with an individualized education plan (IEP) to touch base, then discuss academic goals.

All families were originally expected to receive an initial phone call by Friday, but the calls are taking longer than expected, so some families might not be contacted until early next week, according to Kevin Lowndes, associate superintendent in MCPS’ special education department.

Some parents and caregivers might have to take a more hands-on approach to providing physical therapy, he said, but other services, like occupational and speech therapy, will likely be provided virtually.

“We understand we’ll have to adjust IEP goals during distance learning, but we’re still going to be here to support and help in different ways,” Lowndes said.

Ruschelle Reuben, associate superintendent of the MCPS Office of Student and Family Support and Engagement, said she and her staff are providing resources to families, including many they haven’t worked with before. They have gone over how to create productive home schedules and how to talk to children about the pandemic.

The office also provides information about community services, like free internet and meals for students. The goal is to ensure families have all the resources they need for students to successfully complete the school year, Reuben said.

“I think the whole learning gap is a very legitimate conversation everyone is engaging in, and what I’ve found myself saying to a lot of families is, ‘Keep in mind you were your child’s first teacher,’ ” Reuben said. “A lot of the work is helping families get back into that role where they feel comfortable. … This is a unique opportunity for students and if we can seize the moment, it’s an opportunity for students to demonstrate their knowledge in a different medium.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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For other Bethesda Beat coverage of the coronavirus, click here.

To see a timeline of major coronavirus developments in Maryland and Montgomery County, click here.

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