2020 | Schools

Interim school boundary analysis report released

Many schools considered diverse; 31% of students can walk to school

share this
boundary analysis demographics

A visualization of student demographics throughout the county.

via WXY interim report

A 580-page intermediate report outlining consultants’ findings about Montgomery County school boundaries was released this week, outlining data about schools’ history, student body diversity and enrollment.

WXY Architecture + Urban Design, commissioned for $475,000 to complete the boundary analysis, was originally expected to release an interim report by the end of February. The release was delayed twice — once so consultants could further examine “complicated data,” the other so MCPS could focus on closing schools as mandated by the state amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The interim report culminates more than a year of work since the school board authorized the comprehensive review of the boundaries that determine which schools students attend.

In it is a review of consultants’ community engagement efforts; an analysis of data about schools’ demographics, capacity and enrollment; and next steps.

It’s not clear exactly when the highly anticipated report was released. It was found on the MCPS website late Wednesday night. As of early Thursday morning, MCPS had not sent or posted any notices that the report was available.

In a statement on Thursday afternoon, MCPS wrote that the report had been posted to the website in error. Because it had been “widely shared in the community,” MCPS said it would remain available online and more information about “next steps” would be “shared at a later date.”

In a message prefacing the report, school board President Shebra Evans addressed “intense and passionate conversations” that marked the analysis.

In meetings and during forums, community members have sometimes had terse exchanges as various sides of the debate voice their opinions.

For some, diversifying schools and breaking up concentrations of poverty is the main priority. For others, ensuring students attend the schools closest to their homes is the most important. Others fall somewhere in the middle or don’t hold strong opinions about the process.

School board members and MCPS employees have been adamant that the analysis will not result in “surprise” boundary changes. Consultants can’t tell the board what boundaries to change. If board members want to use the data to make changes, they have to initiate a separate time-intensive process, according to MCPS policy.

“Only the Board has the authority to change or set school boundaries, however, it is important as a community that we are collectively and respectfully engaged in the conversation,” Evans’ said in her message. “As we continue this important conversation, we ask everyone — regardless of your perspective — to give others the benefit of the doubt; to listen to understand; and to engage in a constructive manner that will help us move forward as one community committed to the best outcomes for all our students.”

The second phase of the project, already underway, will analyze data to determine how each factor impacts the others and “the opportunities and trade-offs when considering the optimization of each lens,” according to the report. There will be more community meetings, online commenting forms and small-scale interviews.

A final report is due by the end of June.

Findings from the report, by topic

Assignment stability: This refers to how often MCPS students are affected by boundary changes. The school district’s goal is to not change students’ school assignments more than once at any level, and to “keep student assignments stable for as long a period as possible.”

The boundary analysis interim report says:

  • MCPS boundaries have changed 131 times since 1984. Only 16 boundary changes have happened since 2010. There were 107 changes between 1984 and 2006. Most boundary changes since 1984 were related to school building projects or the construction of new facilities.
  • Over the past nine years, middle school students were the most likely to be affected by boundary changes. High school students were the least likely to be redistricted. Less than 1% of middle school students and 0.5% of all elementary students were redistricted each year.
  • The Clarksburg High School cluster has had 10 boundary changes since 1984, while the Poolesville cluster has had the fewest, with one change. The Walter Johnson and Walt Whitman clusters have each had two boundary changes since 1984. All other clusters averaged five boundary changes, aside from the two consortia, which each had about 20.

Utilization: This is a measure of how many students are enrolled in a school compared to its capacity. A school is considered “overutilized” if its capacity exceeds 100%. MCPS’ target enrollment is between 80% and 100% of a school’s capacity.

Findings from the interim report say:

  • Of the 208 schools in Montgomery County, 109 are currently over capacity. On average, high schools are at 103% capacity, middle schools are at 97% and elementary schools are at 102%.
  • Elementary schools along and south of I-270 and U.S. 370 are most often overenrolled. Middle schools south of U.S. 370 and U.S. 29 are more commonly overenrolled, as are high schools south of U.S. 370 and east of I-270.
  • Since 2009, the number of elementary schools more than 92 students over capacity has remained steady, while the number of high schools overenrolled by 150 students or more quadrupled.
  • Smaller elementary schools, generally with capacity for fewer than 400 students, are more apt to be overenrolled.
  • There are some existing disparities between enrollment of adjacent schools. The widest gap at the elementary level shows a school at nearly 157% capacity is nearest to a school at about 80% capacity. Meanwhile, two high schools have “utilization rates that are very dissimilar” from nearby schools.
  • Three middle schools in the county are below MCPS’ target enrollment, and each is adjacent to “somewhat overutilized” middle schools.
  • Title I schools, with higher concentrations of students in poverty, are more often overenrolled than other schools.
  • Consortia schools are more often over capacity than cluster schools. The two consortia — downcounty and northeast — include several high schools, while school clusters have one main high school.

Diversity: Part of the intent of the boundary analysis is to examine student demographics. For the project, consultants used race and ethnicity, socioeconomic background and English language proficiency as measures of diversity.

WXY’s report says:

  • While no demographic group makes up more than 40% of MCPS’ overall enrollment, nearly half of all MCPS schools have a student body in which one racial group makes up 50% or more of students. Most schools are considered diverse, with two or three racial groups making up at least 15% of a school’s students.
  • The report says “schools near to one another are often very dissimilar … in terms of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic composition.” It also says cluster boundaries “may contribute to racial and/or socio-economic isolation to some degree.”
  • School boundaries with irregular shapes have the most different levels of student body diversity compared to neighboring schools.
  • Schools generally reflect the diversity of their communities.

Proximity: MCPS aims to have as many students as possible within a defined “walk zone,” which determines students who are eligible to ride buses to and from schools.

According to the interim report:

  • About 31% of all students live within their school’s “walk zone.” Walk zones vary in distance depending on grade level.
  • Elementary students live an average of 1.2 miles from their assigned school. Middle school students live 2.1 miles away and high school students live 2.5 miles away from their schools on average.
  • About 66% of all students attend the school closest to their home. The rest are assigned to schools farther away.
  • Students in more densely populated areas generally live closer to the schools to which they are assigned.

Community engagement: Consultants collected and transcribed more than 4,000 comments from community members during the six large-scale informational meetings held in late 2019 and early 2020.

Several pointed to: a) the importance of ensuring MCPS uses accurate enrollment projections, b) concern about the school district’s policy that suggests diversity be given special consideration in boundary studies and c) the importance of students living close to their schools, according to WXY’s report.

Consultants highlighted several instances in which they changed their approach to community engagement after receiving feedback from the community.

Often, the adjustments were to tweak the presentation to provide greater clarity about data or creating frequently asked question pages online. After one particularly tense meeting at Julius West Middle School, where community members wanted time to ask questions of consultants directly, consultants added time for a question-and-answer session to each subsequent meeting.

Consultants estimate that about 2,250 people attended the six community meetings held about the analysis. Most attendees were white and Asian parents of MCPS students, according to the WXY report. About 40% of attendees resided in the Bethesda area, while about 30% were from the Silver Spring area.

Nearly half of all people who attended said they were “skeptical” of the process, while about 31% said it “is an important effort that we need.”

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