Are Montgomery County Public Schools Still the Best?
Overcrowding and competing priorities pose serious challenges for school system
During the past school year, 381 portable classrooms—such as these at Ashburton Elementary School—were in use, housing about 8,700 students. Photo by Skip Bronw
‘BURSTING AT THE SEAMS’
Nearly 920 students walk through the doors of Ashburton Elementary School every morning. A few blocks off Old Georgetown Road in North Bethesda, the school was built to hold 650 students. Among the 133 elementary schools in Montgomery County, it’s in the top five for student enrollment.
“When you have a school like this, which is not built to the capacity we need, every day you’re fitting a square peg in a round hole,” says Laura Chace, who has three children at Ashburton and just finished a two-year stint as president of the school’s PTA.
When a recent change in bell times added 10 minutes to the school day, some schools—given contractual obligations on the length of the day for teaching staff—were able to deal with the issue by extending lunch periods. But Ashburton couldn’t stretch lunch any further—it already required six lunch periods, beginning at 10:30 a.m. and ending at 2 p.m. daily.
So Chace says the school had to get creative. “Some classes go to the bathroom, some classes sit in the hallways reading and eating snacks. But they have to be supervised,” she says. Ashburton Principal Gregory Mullenholz estimates that the school’s paraeducators spend about 15 hours each week acting as lunchroom and hallway monitors—at the expense of assisting students in the learning process.
Watts, Chace’s successor as Ashburton’s PTA president, also has three children at the school; the women met as kindergarten parents. “We’ve seen the evolution of this school,” Watts says, “and it’s exploding.”
MCPS, which consists of 204 schools, is divided into “clusters” that are anchored by the county’s 25 high schools. School facilities in 12 of those clusters have been deemed to be above a 105 percent capacity level for the current fiscal year that ends next June, and two more clusters are close to bumping up against that threshold.
Once the 105 percent designation is reached, county planning statutes require developers who want to build new residential housing in that area to make special “facility payments” to help offset the cost of school construction.
“The areas where there is slow growth or no growth are the exception,” says Bruce Crispell, who retired this past summer as director of the Division of Long-Range Planning after 30 years with MCPS. The student population is projected to reach more than 166,500 by 2022, and Crispell says the only areas seeing relatively slow growth are Potomac, Poolesville and Damascus.
During the past school year, 381 “relocatables,” or portable classrooms, were in use, housing about 8,700 students. Eight of the relocatables were at Ashburton, where they were home to the entire fifth grade. Melissa McKenna, a vice president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs and chair of its Capital Improvement Program Committee, says the relocatables themselves usually are not a problem, but they are symptomatic of the overcrowding in a school’s core facilities. “It’s the gym, it’s the media center, it’s the core spaces where everything is overcrowded,” she says. “You can’t suddenly build more gym space or more cafeteria space. It doesn’t work that way.”
According to McKenna, the space crunch has forced teachers at some schools to store files and teaching materials on carts or in closets because they don’t have a desk or a home classroom. At Rockville’s Meadow Hall Elementary School, teachers “are literally using the building supervisor’s office,” McKenna says. “That is absolutely unacceptable to me.”
The level of state aid for school construction in Montgomery County has been a perennial point of contention. In recent years, critics have complained that the county, with about 17 percent of the state’s population, receives only about 12 to 13 percent of state school construction money. This has been mitigated somewhat by a 2015 program that benefits the county based on the high rate of school population growth and the number of relocatable classrooms in use.
Nonetheless, in recent years, the county has gotten significantly less than requested from the state in school construction funding, due in part to a formula that considers Montgomery’s property and income wealth, notwithstanding its increasing areas of poverty. For the current fiscal year that started July 1, the county asked for nearly $150 million in state construction aid. It ended up receiving just over $50 million.
Smith came to Rockville after three years in Annapolis as chief academic officer and interim state school superintendent. He says he expects to be in the state capital a lot when the Maryland General Assembly is in session, in search of financial assistance on this front. “My job is to advocate for MCPS, and that’s what I will do,” he says, “advocate strongly and use the knowledge and information I’ve gained in the state [Department of Education] to do that.”
There are no firm estimates of what it would take for the system to catch up in terms of new construction and renovation—though it appears to be in the range of several hundred million dollars beyond what is now available. A nearly $1.73 billion, six-year capital improvement plan approved this year by the County Council, while up 10 percent from the previous six-year program, will not be enough. “It’s a substantial dent, but it doesn’t cover all,” Crispell says.
Adds McKenna: “We grow by 2,500 students a year, so it’s impossible to catch up and keep up at the same time—and that’s kind of the balance that’s been going on between school additions, new schools and those revitalization projects that are so key.”
Several elementary schools have seen outbreaks of mold in recent years, the result of aging heating and air-conditioning systems. During a press conference in the media center at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown last year, radio station WAMU reported that a leak in the roof was sending water into a garbage can near a bank of computers. Ironically, the purpose of the press conference was to unveil the MCPS construction budget for the coming year.
Chace was recently a member of a roundtable discussion group for the Walter Johnson High School cluster. The group recommended reopening the erstwhile Woodward High School, now being used as a middle school, as a high school. Patricia O’Neill, who represents the Montgomery County Board of Education district that includes Walter Johnson, favors such a move. “If we don’t do something, Walter Johnson is going to grow to 3,200 students,” she says. It currently has about 2,300 students.
MCPS “preferred” planning guidelines set the maximum high school size at 2,400 and the maximum elementary school size at 750. However, a proposed addition at Ashburton would raise its capacity to nearly 900.
The large class sizes were too much for at least one parent, who withdrew her daughter from Ashburton and sent her to private school. “I wasn’t going to wait for change until after my child graduates,” says the parent, who requested anonymity to protect the identity of her child. “The school became so large, she had to wait to learn.” In private school, her child is now in classes half the size of those at Ashburton, which often numbered up to 29 children.
Says Chace, “Parents love the administration, they love the teachers, they love the school. Parents as a whole support an addition to 750. But they don’t want it to be built to 900.”
As an alternative, Ashburton parents are suggesting the reopening of an elementary school in the area that closed after school population dipped in the 1970s and 1980s. Such reopenings provide further financial demands on a strained construction budget.
“When we reopen an old school, it’s usually not just reopening an old building,” Crispell says. “In most cases, we pretty much have to start all over again. They’re small and out of date, and it [involves] a complete rebuild.”
Chace says MCPS needs to realize what’s at stake. “I think what the community is saying in general is that they want MCPS to plan strategically for the future, to have more reasonably sized schools,” she says. “If they do that, I think a lot of positives will fall into place and the schools will maintain their reputation. But if they don’t, I think there is a risk that people will not buy their houses in Montgomery County, and the schools’ reputation will suffer.”
Melissa McKenna, a vice president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs and chair of its Capital Improvement Program Committee, says when you have to use portable classrooms, the whole school is strained. “It’s the gym, it’s the media center, it’s the core spaces where everything is overcrowded,” she says. “You can’t suddenly build more gym space or more cafeteria space. It doesn’t work that way.” Photo by Liz Lynch
‘HOW PROGRESSIVE IS THIS COMMUNITY?’
On a muggy night this past May, 400 people crowded into the Walter Johnson High School cafeteria for a discussion about a lengthy report called “Montgomery County Public Schools: Study of Choice and Special Academic Programs” that had been released two months earlier. The report was commissioned in January 2015 by the county Board of Education to study the maze of opportunities aimed at high-achieving students, including centers for elementary school students deemed to be “highly gifted” and middle and high school magnet programs.
Billed as the last of three community forums on the so-called Choice study, the gathering quickly took on the air of a political rally, as banners reading “No Racial Discrimination” were unfurled. One Chinese-American attendee, calling himself “Martin Luther Zhou,” stood up in the back of the room and read a sardonic takeoff on the Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
Byron Johns, chair of the county’s NAACP Parents’ Council, walked out of the session early. “The outbursts, the placards, the shouting down of people was offensive enough,” he said afterward, “and I was more concerned about getting caught up in an atmosphere that seemed to be getting increasingly agitated and aggressive.”
The yearlong, $200,000 study by New York-based Metis Associates was undertaken largely at the prodding of former superintendent Starr, who had focused on issues around selective admission programs when he ran the Stamford, Connecticut, school system before coming to Maryland.
Some sources suggest that Starr regarded the study and its findings as a project for a second term. His failure to win reappointment a month after the Choice study was commissioned has left Smith with a political hot potato. “I think Josh saw this study as a way to push the question of ‘How progressive is this community?’ ” says Lloyd, the Montgomery County Education Association president. “It’s not going to be resolved in a single year. …It’s going to be a very tense conversation. Anytime you deal with race and class, it’s going to be uncomfortable.”
Among the findings of the Choice study: While these programs were initially designed to promote voluntary racial integration within MCPS, the 14.5 percent of the county school population currently participating in them is disproportionately white and Asian-American. The study has produced a divide, to a significant degree along racial lines, between those who benefit from the status quo and those who want to see it changed. Says the Board of Education’s O’Neill: “People feel very passionately in Montgomery County, and if it’s going to gore your ox, or, as you perceive it, take something away, it’s a very difficult situation.”
Several of those at the Walter Johnson session waved placards reading “No on 3A.” Recommendation 3A of the study suggests the use of “non-cognitive criteria” in considering admission to the programs in question, taking into consideration a student’s “motivation and persistence,” as well as test scores. Entrance to language immersion classes is by lottery, but other programs covered by the study generally involve selective admissions.
Many of the Asian-Americans who turned out for the Walter Johnson meeting were clearly concerned that would put them at a disadvantage: While a little less than 15 percent of the countywide student population is Asian-American, the percentage of Asians-Americans in the heralded mathematics magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring is nearly four times that.
Following the Walter Johnson session, O’Neill met with a group of Chinese-American parents. “They’re very concerned we’re going to a quota system,” she says. “Those are illegal, but some in the community, particularly in the Asian community, believe that.” O’Neill points to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that places restrictions on the use of race in assigning students to particular schools.
Some high school principals are said to have complained privately that these programs skim off top students, leaving other schools in an academically weakened condition. Navarro is among those who contend that the future emphasis needs to be on “how can you provide the best opportunities for learning in all schools…versus having these particular programs here and there.”
Defenders of programs such as the Blair math magnet, created in the early 1980s, say they provide opportunities to high-achieving students that would not be academically or financially viable otherwise. They also criticized the Choice study for not assessing the quality or value of these programs, focusing instead on who is being admitted to them.
What is not in dispute is that the demographic makeup of the students who apply to and get into these programs is highly disproportionate to the overall makeup of the county school system. Furthermore, awareness of the programs—and the ability to deal with an often complicated application process—often varies sharply by race and socioeconomic status.
African-American students, who comprise only 7.5 percent of the Communications Arts Program at Blair, started a group called “Black CAP” earlier this year to recruit and mentor students. Pictured are three members of the group, from left to right, Marley Majette, Jaya Hinton and Alix Swann.
The Choice study found that white and Asian-American students combined for nearly 80 percent of the enrollment in middle and high school magnet programs around the county during the 2013-2014 academic year; together, those two groups represented just over 46 percent of the school population as a whole.
Data for 2015-2016, compiled by MCPS for The Washington Post earlier this year, showed that 85 percent of the students in the math magnet at Montgomery Blair were either white or Asian-American. Another magnet program at Blair, the Communications Arts Program (CAP), had an enrollment that was nearly 80 percent white or Asian-American. By comparison; countywide school enrollment for whites and Asian-Americans was slightly over 44 percent last year. Unlike the math magnet, which is open to students countywide, the CAP program is largely restricted to students residing in what’s called the Downcounty Consortium, an area that feeds into five high schools: Blair and Wheaton, as well as John F. Kennedy and Northwood in Silver Spring, and Albert Einstein in Kensington.
African-American students, who comprise only 7.5 percent of the CAP program, started a group called “Black CAP” earlier this year after witnessing what they regarded as racial prejudice during a class exercise intended to mirror the deliberations of the U.S. Congress. “Some of the bills being passed were discriminatory; the way some of the students were acting was racially prejudiced, and it was making [black] students uncomfortable,” says Jaya Hinton, an organizer of the Black CAP group.
The group has begun to recruit and mentor students, and is “trying to spread the message about these application programs in order to bring in more students of color from areas where the message doesn’t reach out as far,” Hinton says.
Likewise, the Montgomery Blair High School Magnet Foundation is raising private funding to identify 30 elementary school students from groups now underrepresented in the math magnet, and offer tutoring and mentoring to prepare them for the program. “Access to gifted and talented classes is something that seems to be pretty sensitive to parental leveraging,” says Shores of the recent Stanford study. “We know that blacks and other minority groups are underrepresented in gifted and talented classes, even ones who have the same test scores as the white kids.”
For students who can afford it, private tutoring in preparation for tests to get into selective admission programs has become a cottage industry in Montgomery County. Kirsten Martin, an assistant professor at The George Washington University School of Business and mother of three children in magnets or other selective admission programs, recently wrote to the Board of Education, asking that practice tests be made available to all students. “I think there’s a problem if you have a leg up by hiring a tutor,” she says. “I’m a believer in the public school system, and that my son’s achievements should not be based on my station in life.”
‘WE HAVE TO CHANGE’
As Jack Smith begins his tenure this fall, the big question is whether he can balance the wants and needs of disparate communities in a county with such broad socioeconomic and racial diversity. If he can, that will go a long way toward determining not only the success of his superintendency, but the future health and appeal of the MCPS system.
“He’s going to have to manage expectations,” says Montgomery College President DeRionne Pollard. “Let’s be realistic: He gets a crack at a new [school] board every two years with an election. We have a county election that’s going to be taking place that could have a significant impact on how one thinks about and disperses the resources of this county.”
Indeed, Smith needs to be mindful of his relationship with the board that hired him earlier this year: The failure of Starr to win a contract renewal came after he lost the confidence of two board members who were elected after he was hired. But perhaps Smith’s tougher political task will involve the County Council, which will be looking for results after voting to increase the property tax rate earlier this year.
“For the amount of money we spent on education, it’s important for us to show ROI [return on investment],” says Rice, the councilmember who heads the panel’s Education Committee. “Because our community members, who know how much money we invested and spent on our system, are going to start asking questions—and looking at, ‘What did this glean us?’”
When asked if Smith faces a difficult political task in balancing the needs and demands of schools in such widely varying circumstances, Rice acknowledges that he does—to an extent.
“With our W cluster schools [a reference to Walt Whitman, Walter Johnson, Winston Churchill and Thomas S. Wootton high schools], I would say that if we saw a difference in terms of those children not getting into quality schools, not following the career pathways that they wanted to follow, I’d be more concerned. But that’s not what we’re seeing. We’re not seeing those children be the ones who are incarcerated, recruited into gangs, or just falling between the cracks. All of those things are the kinds of things we see with some of our challenged schools.
“Let’s focus on these pieces that aren’t performing—get them up to speed and then we lift everything up and accelerate.”
Smith acknowledges that the system needs to adapt. “I am absolutely confident that we can increase opportunities for students and maintain the opportunities that exist now in different ways and with different ways of thinking—because the world changes, and we have to change.”
Lloyd, who has worked in Montgomery County for 27 years, believes parents in more affluent communities will be supportive. “If I’m a parent at Ashburton,” he says, “I want to make sure my kid is cared for, that I feel my tax dollars are helping my kid grow, and that I’m seeing some facilities improvements. But if that happens, I also really believe that I’m not averse to making sure that some of my tax dollars go over to help kids who are less fortunate than my kid.”
Louis Peck (firstname.lastname@example.org) has covered politics extensively at the local, state and national level for four decades.