The Pursuit of Equity
In a county that is growing more racially and economically diverse, MCPS is facing the challenge of ensuring equal learning opportunities for all students
Among the disparities, a 2014 update of a 2009 report from the county council’s Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) found that student performance at 11 “high-poverty” high schools in the county had fallen behind that of students at 14 “low-poverty” high schools, which included Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC), Walt Whitman and Walter Johnson in Bethesda, Thomas S. Wootton in Rockville and Winston Churchill in Potomac. The report found “an increase in the stratification…by income, race, and ethnicity” and that the “achievement gap between high- and low-poverty high schools has widened among a majority of measures,” including performance on Advanced Placement and college readiness exams.
And a 2015 OLO report looking into the achievement gap concluded that MCPS could provide even more resources to its high-poverty schools—and its secondary schools with high FARMS rates, in particular—to help narrow the gap. Among its findings, the study concluded that while MCPS allocated more staff to schools with high FARMS rates, “more experienced and expensive teachers were allocated to low-FARMS schools and there was higher teacher turnover in high-FARMS schools.”
Even the district’s choice and magnet programs, created over a span of 40 years to provide racial and economic balance, were criticized in a 2016 study initiated by Starr and commissioned by the school board. The Metis Associates report concluded that the programs—including language immersion, centers for highly gifted elementary school students, and magnet and high school consortia programs—had spawned inequities ranging from a process for choosing students that relied partly on parent and teacher recommendations to wide disparities in the racial and economic makeup of the programs. For example, white students, at about 45 percent, far surpassed the number of Asian, black and Latino students who applied to and then were invited to attend elementary language immersion programs in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the report. Based on the report, MCPS has moved to universal screening, in which schools identify students to be invited for certain programs, and adopted other changes to increase minority representation in its programs and offer enriched instruction to more students.
And then there are the parents and school activists who are upset over inconsistencies in course offerings from school to school at the middle and high school levels, high staff turnover at schools in lower-income areas, and the perception that some schools are more rigorous and offer more learning opportunities than others. Tracie Potts, a vice president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations (MCCPTA) who lives in the Paint Branch High School cluster, says parents don’t understand why there are inconsistencies; for example, some middle schools offer robotics and other advanced programming while others do not.
“It’s more than a perception that there is inequity,” she says. “I think it’s complex because there are issues of learning and issues of budget and they don’t always coincide.”
Two years into his four-year contract, Smith says MCPS is employing a number of tactics to close what he calls “the opportunity gap,” including the use of data to urge schools to better identify students who are ready for more rigorous instruction, both within schools and through choice and magnet programs. Programs are being expanded to better prepare students for college and a variety of careers that may not require college, and, for the first time, MCPS paid student fees charged by the College Board for the SAT, so high schools could offer the test for free to all students during the past school year.
Smith talks of efforts to promote the best instructional strategies to reach students, increasing access to pre-K and dual-language programs, improving the diversity of the system’s teachers, and requiring all teachers and administrators to receive annual training to increase their awareness of other cultures and help them recognize implicit biases that may impact their ability to see a student’s potential.
Those efforts are producing results, Smith says. Among them: About 1,600 more black and Latino middle school students were enrolled in Algebra 1 during the 2017-2018 school year than during the 2015-2016 school year, he says. This occurred after Smith said he asked principals in August 2016 to reevaluate their students and identify those who could be successful taking the course by eighth grade—considered a key to college readiness—even though they might not seem “to fit the mold.” Seventy-seven percent of the black students, 73 percent of the Latinos and 72 percent of students in poverty of all races successfully completed the course, Smith says.
“That’s three-fourths of those students who would have been sitting in a lower-level math class for the eighth grade, and all because we had a conversation and I showed [the principals] some data,” he says. “That’s how you do it; you call attention to it, you ask questions—‘Why is this?’ ”
An initiative to increase participation in Advanced Placement at four high schools—Northwest, Col. Zak Magruder, Springbrook and Wheaton—in the 2016-2017 school year resulted in a total of 465 additional students of color and those from low-income families signing up for classes after staff met with prospective candidates, according to Smith and MCPS. That program was expanded to six more high schools in the 2017-2018 school year; another eight will be added this school year, he says. Smith also touts the student empowerment inspired by the Minority Scholars Program, a student-led initiative with a chapter in every high school to improve the academic success of minority students through tutoring and mentoring. Smith promised there would be a chapter in every middle school this year “if I have to drive to each one myself.”
Spending for the 2018-2019 school year, which is $77 million more than last year’s total, will pay for more two-way dual-language immersion programs in elementary schools and add more seats to pre-K programs. Additional funds will be used to expand programs in computer science, coding and robotics, and for preparing for college. Students will have more opportunities to explore careers in cybersecurity, law enforcement, fire safety and rescue, and aviation and aerospace that may not require a college degree. The funding also will pay for the piloting of extended-year programs at Arcola and Roscoe R. Nix elementary schools in Silver Spring and the hiring of more psychologists and counselors for Title I schools with more than 650 students.
“It’s not about going to a school with lower poverty or more students of color or fewer students of color, it’s about what happens in those classrooms every single day on behalf of students,” Smith says.
For Jane Ennis, providing equity for students when she was principal of Glen Haven Elementary School meant meeting a range of needs, from offering a free hot breakfast each morning and collecting hats and coats for low-income students to offering highly individualized instruction designed to give every child the tools to succeed academically.
“We get a lot of resources from the county, and we use every resource to meet the needs of the child, so equity here is making sure we provide [for], as much as we can, every single need that each child brings to the table,” Ennis said in June, shortly before leaving the Silver Spring school to become one of MCPS’s nine directors of learning, achievement and administration.
During the past school year, about half of Glen Haven’s 503 students were Hispanic, a quarter were black and about 23 percent were white or Asian. More than half of the students received free or reduced-price meals, and a third were learners of English as a second language. About 100 students hailed from a transient group of military families who live in nearby military housing, according to Ennis.
The school relies on partnerships with local churches and nonprofits, as well as the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, for help. In addition to providing breakfast for all students, the school runs a pantry on the second floor, where families can pick up food.
The school’s self-developed “Enrichment for All” program focuses on providing several levels of small-group instruction for students each week and uses a system of “scaffolding” that works by providing every student with enough help to achieve grade-level proficiency before moving on to more advanced learning. “We spend most of our time in the classroom making sure we’re delivering the rigorous instruction we said we would deliver, and to me that’s where equity is coming from,” Ennis said.
Under Ennis’ leadership, Glen Haven has become one of the highest-performing elementary schools in MCPS, according to district officials. “This is one of the things that is so great—the idea that there really is equity because Glen Haven has a higher FARMS rate, but their students perform at the same levels as students of a lower FARMS rate, so it’s not about the [background of the] students, it’s about the instruction,” MCPS spokesman Derek Turner says.
Schools like Glen Haven—where 82 percent of the teachers had five or more years of experience in the 2017-2018 school year—prove that the quality of a school’s leadership, staff and instruction, rather than its demographics, are the keys that determine whether it succeeds, educators and activists say. “When that leader comes in and they radiate that excitement about being there, I don’t care what school you’re in, that excitement goes up and that engagement goes up,” says MCCPTA President Lynne Harris, who teaches at Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Silver Spring.
But too many schools don’t have that consistent quality leadership or teaching staff that’s committed to staying the course, some parent advocates say. High teacher turnover is a problem in schools in low-income areas despite incentives, financial or otherwise, to get teachers to stay, according to MCEA’s Lloyd, who says a recent union program that would have paid teachers extra money if they sought lead teacher status certification while working in high-needs schools drew few takers. “Teachers live in an ecosystem where they’re highly dependent upon each other and a really good climate and culture,” he says. “So if you can create a team that’s driven all together and then help that team move forward in the right way, that’s a very powerful dynamic.”