2021 | Schools

Broader redistricting could help MCPS attain ideals, boundary report says

Study outlines possibilities for proximity, diversity, other ideals in school zones

share this

File photo

A long-anticipated boundary analysis says Montgomery County Public Schools could make more progress toward its ideals for school enrollment if it considered redistricting up to 10% of its students and taking a countywide approach.

Typically, the report said, MCPS redistricts no more than 2.5% of its students per school level in a given year, and those are usually limited to certain regions when an area school is expanded or a new school is built. In most years, less than 1% of students are redistricted.

The analysis by WXY Architecture + Urban Design, in conjunction with Public Engagement Associates, does not recommend specific boundary changes. If the school board wants to use data in the report to make changes, that would require a lengthy new process.

 



Rather, the report — which is posted on the MCPS website — gives insight and guidance for evaluating different factors. It is filled with charts, tables and maps that support the evaluations.

“This provides a framework for understanding what may be possible through a comprehensive districtwide boundary plan,” the report says.

MCPS on Thursday released the report, which examines the possible effects of boundary changes in the pursuit of ideals such as diversity and proximity to schools.

“The purpose of the boundary analysis work was to examine existing conditions in the district and provide a critical data resource that will allow Board members to comprehensively understand districtwide issues informed by data and community feedback and guide future boundary considerations,” an MCPS press release says. “The final report does not make any boundary recommendations.”

The school board during the 2021-22 school year will “explore potential next steps” based on the report’s finding, the MCPS press release says.

WXY was tasked with looking at four ideals:

  • utilization (related to each school’s enrollment compared to capacity)
  • diversity (demographics of students at enrolled at each school)
  • proximity (how close students live to their schools)
  • assignment stability (avoiding having students switch from school to school)

Other findings in the report include:

  • Looking comprehensively at districtwide changes will mean “greater improvements than small localized changes.”
  • Cluster boundaries could be “an impediment” to fixing disparities at schools that are overcrowded or underused.
  • A “slight” increase in students’ distance from their school could be a tradeoff for significant improvements to utilization and diversity.
  • Rezoning all students to their closest school would require large disturbances to boundaries, resulting in rezoning for about 19% of elementary students, 25% of middle school students and 24% of high school students.
  • School utilization and diversity can be improved at the same time when adjusting boundaries between neighborhood schools
  • Existing middle and high school boundaries create more demographic disparities based on distance alone

The analysis began in early 2019 and was delayed for months by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a 178-page final report, WXY, which is based in New York City, shared its analyses and conclusions it obtained through surveys, a review of existing schools and boundaries, and numerous channels of community feedback.

WXY relied on five analytical models to gauge the possibilities of positive and negative changes for multiple factors at the same time. Two models focused on utilization, one focused on diversity, and two focused on proximity.

The models were run thousands of times, exploring the universe of possibilities as part of the research. None of those maps is in the report or will be given to the school board.

Using the current MCPS boundaries as a starting point, the five models show that as one factor is given more weight, it could diminish progress for other factors, or cause them to get worse.

The report also goes into detail in its review of the feedback it received.

According to WXY, more than 2,200 people in the community took part in the process from the fall of 2019 to the spring of 2020.

The process includes large community meetings, small-group meetings and surveys. WXY created an interactive boundary explorer, in which people could go online to experiment with data and what boundaries the changes would create. WXY report that there were more than 8,200 sessions with that boundary tool.

But despite the various efforts to reach a wide swath of the community, WXY found it tough to reach certain underrepresented groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic both slowed down the timetable for the analysis and forced WXY to rely on virtual discussion forums.

WXY found differences in priorities in different parts of the county. Overall, though, participants valued proximity and assignment stability for students the most.

The school board decided in January 2019 to do the boundary analysis, looking at years of “increasing enrollment and demographic shifts,” the final report says.

An overview of the report says: “The Districtwide Boundary Analysis seeks to understand the degree to which current school boundaries in Montgomery County further MCPS’s objectives to facilitate equitable and optimal outcomes in facility use, student diversity within schools, student proximity to schools, and stability of student assignments.

“The study furthers MCPS’s engagement efforts from Spring 2019 and continues to involve community members to understand the spectrum of challenges towards creating more meaningfully integrated, diverse, accessible, and culturally responsive schools within the district.”

The analysis began in the fall of 2019. WXY produced an interim report in March 2020, focusing on “data analysis, benchmarking and public engagement,” according to MCPS.

The final report was delayed multiple times and was most recently expected to be ready in December 2020.

Along the way, there were deep philosophical divides in the community between proponents of the analysis and opponents, as well as those who supported a study but were critical of how this one was carried out.

Some people considered it most important to create diverse schools, and possibly break up concentrations of poverty. Others were concerned that a focus on diversity could lead to students being shifted to schools much farther from their home.

MCPS agreed to pay WXY about $475,000 for the project. In February, the district awarded WXY another $276,000 contract to update the interactive boundary explorer tool to include more data.