Upcounty Boundary Changes Are First Test of Policy Emphasizing Diversity

Upcounty Boundary Changes Are First Test of Policy Emphasizing Diversity

Community members have filed ethics complaint

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People protest upcounty boundary changes outside of the MCPS central offices on Tuesday night.

Caitlynn Peetz

In finalizing boundary changes for several upcounty schools, the local school board on Tuesday set an important precedent for communities throughout Montgomery County.

The decision is the first test of an updated school district policy that places an increased emphasis on student demographic diversity when creating or altering school-attendance boundaries.

The factor has always been considered in boundary reviews, but the updated policy says MCPS should “especially strive to create a diverse student body” by weighing data about race, socioeconomics and English language learners.

MCPS periodically reviews and changes school boundaries as new schools are built or space is added to existing schools.

Last year, MCPS began a boundary study to explore ways to ease crowding at Clarksburg and Northwest high schools when Seneca Valley High School is rebuilt, its first study since changing the policy.

The $130 million addition will make Seneca Valley the largest high school in the state, with capacity for 2,581 students, according to MCPS.

The boundary study process was tense from the beginning, but escalated in September, when Superintendent Jack Smith released his list of recommended changes.

Community members, many from Clarksburg, argued that Smith’s recommendation — ultimately adopted by the Board of Education — focused too heavily on increasing student diversity and not enough on retaining “community schools.”

Approximately 2,000 students at Clarksburg, Seneca Valley and Northwest high schools will be affected by the boundary changes, according to MCPS staff members.

The changes will reduce the use of Clarksburg High School from 146% to 118%, and at Northwest High School from 118% to 113%. Seneca Valley’s use when the addition is complete will increase from 49% to 99%.

The rate of students eligible for free or reduced-priced meals (FARMS) will increase at Clarksburg High from 27.5% to 28.5% and decrease at Northwest High from 22.5% to 21.6%. The FARMS rate will decrease from 39% to 34.5% at Seneca Valley, bringing the disparity between the three schools to 12.9%.

Similar changes will occur at the middle school level.

“My goals in developing my recommendations were to minimize the FARMS disparities at both the high school and middle school levels, while at the same time maximize walkers at their current schools and reduce the utilization rates at schools to the maximum extent possible,” Smith wrote in a memo to school board members.

Board member Judy Docca said she felt the board did consider student demographics more heavily than in the past, in accordance with the policy. And while the process isn’t perfect, she feels the policy is written “really well” and is reflective of the majority of the community’s preferences.

Docca, however, rejected assertions from community members that the school board is solely using boundary changes and diversifying schools to improve minority students’ academic performance.

“The policy made us more aware of what we need to do on the front end, but we’re also working on things in the classroom to help students, as well,” Docca said in an interview on Wednesday. “We’re working to get students into advanced courses, improving the physical conditions of schools and all of that.”

Former school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse, who helped lead the effort to change the boundary study policy, said the focus on diversity is important because research suggests desegregated schools could increase minority students’ standardized test scores and help others adjust to the “real world.”

A recent study by a Stanford University researcher showed low-income students isolated from more affluent peers are more likely to have lower test scores. Additionally, students not exposed to peers of different races and socioeconomic status are less likely to be successful in the “real world” because they often can’t positively interact with people of other backgrounds.

“We need to start paying attention to this continuing and growing segregation by socioeconomic status in our schools,” Ortman-Fouse said. “The bottom line is you can’t put the burden of poverty on students.”

 

A countywide interest

People across the county followed the upcounty boundary study to see what to expect as future studies are undertaken.

The upcounty boundary decisions, and the logic behind them, set a precedent for future boundary studies (the school board authorized three new studies on Tuesday) and will likely help guide consultants who are mid-review of all boundaries in MCPS.

The rhetoric about the comprehensive countywide study has been similarly heated, starting with a meeting in April during which some community members said new boundaries will punish white families for working to buy homes with “better schools” in the neighborhood.  They also said students from lower-performing schools, generally those with high concentrations of minority students, wouldn’t “be able to keep up” at more affluent schools.

Conversations, at least at public meetings, have been calmer since, with opponents largely citing fears of longer bus rides should any boundaries change. Still, many have submitted comments to the school board saying changing boundaries based on student demographics is “ridiculous” and “social engineering.”

Lauren Berkowitz, from Potomac, was part of a group of more than 150 people who protested outside the MCPS central offices on Tuesday, opposing the upcounty boundary changes adopted by the school board.

She said many protesters were frustrated that MCPS seemed to weigh demographic diversity on the same level as school use and geography.

“We’re concerned with this policy. We don’t think it best provides resources for students in need, and it causes a lot of disruption in communities,” Berkowitz said. “What we’re concerned about is it meshes demographics and capacity factors together, because those are distinct problems. We think geography should be the No. 1 criteria for boundary decisions.”

Board member Rebecca Smondrowski, who was elected from District 2, was the lone dissenting vote against the boundary changes. Throughout the board’s review of the proposals, she consistently raised questions about community engagement efforts and said she felt the changes would pull too many families away from their neighborhood schools.

“I want people to understand I recognize the larger social issues are real and there are fundamental barriers. Even in Montgomery County, issues like racism, equity and affordable housing are real things that affect children and families every day and there are no perfect solutions,” Smondrowski said. “Meanwhile, I believe schools are a primary hub for relationship building that can’t happen if schools aren’t accessible.”

 

Ethics complaint 

Some community members have filed a formal complaint with the school board’s Ethics Panel regarding the Clarksburg/Seneca Valley/Northwest boundary study.

They allege that MCPS’s director of the Division of Capital Planning, Adrienne Karamihas, lives within the bounds of the study and purposely shielded her neighborhood from any drastic changes.

“We think it is despicable that MCPS talks about fairness and people at MCPS would use their position to keep certain clusters protected from any impact of school rezoning,” one person wrote in an email to the school board. “I personally wondered during this was the original reason for the study shifted completely, why some areas were not surveyed or involved and it’s been brought up that several should have excused themselves at the very beginning for conflict of interest.”

The board’s five-person Ethics Panel will review the complaint, according to MCPS spokesman Derek Turner.

Neither Karamihas nor MCPS spokespeople could be reached for comment on Wednesday, but during a press conference on Tuesday night, Smith said frustrations and concerns about the process should be directed at him because he made the boundary recommendations.

At Tuesday night’s school board meeting, Vice President Pat O’Neill addressed the ethics complaint and said she is “deeply troubled by the tone of emails” the board has received about it.

She said the emails have been sent by a group of about 20 people who are directing their frustration at the wrong person.

“These are ad hominem attacks against an MCPS staffer,” O’Neill said. “There’s only one person who ultimately makes boundary recommendations and that is the superintendent. The recommendations that are before us are from Dr. Jack Smith. … What I’ve seen the last couple days is absolutely uncalled for. In 20 years on the board, I have not seen this kind of low-level behavior and it does not speak well for a community.”

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

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