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
Providing equitable instruction that’s taught by high-quality teachers is key to improving equity, but won’t matter if those teachers hold cultural and racial biases that prevent them from seeing a student’s full potential, educators and parent activists say. That’s why schools are now required to provide training to help staff members recognize their implicit biases and increase awareness of other cultures. In a school system in which about 74 percent of teachers are white—despite district efforts in recent years to hire more diverse staff—understanding the cultural backgrounds and values of an increasingly diverse student body has become a critical part of creating equity, school leaders say.
For teachers, seeing the issue of eliminating cultural and racial biases as a moral obligation is a nonthreatening way to examine whether MCPS practices may be implicitly racist, Lloyd says. “The institutions we have—how we may select kids for [gifted and talented] programs, how we may select kids for honors classes, how we may interact with children in the classroom—those kinds of systems we put in place may inherently be institutionally racist, and we need to address those,” he says.
At Glen Haven, Ennis and her mostly white staff would read and discuss books that explore how to build cultural competencies to help them overcome their own implicit biases. “The big understanding is we all carry bias and there’s no sense in trying to say we don’t have it or that we can make it all go away,” says Cassandra Heifetz, a principal intern who worked under Ennis and now has replaced her. “The goal is to have awareness of the bias and then slow down our reaction so that we can be purposeful in our response to children and so that response creates an equitable learning opportunity for the child.”
At Ashburton Elementary School in Bethesda, just 9 miles or so from Glen Haven, Principal Gregory Mullenholz says he and his staff have been working on improving their cultural competencies since he arrived three years ago. With a minority population hovering around 54 percent and a FARMS rate just under 13 percent in an enrollment nearing 900 in the 2017-2018 school year, Ashburton is more diverse than most Bethesda schools, though its teaching staff is about 88 percent white.
Through training and discussion, staff members have talked about the concept of culture and studied brain research to understand why their biases may lead them to treat some students differently than others. They’re rethinking how to best teach such topics as slavery so teachers honor the history of students of color in a way they may not have in the past, Mullenholz says.
“The ultimate message has been: I need to step back and look at myself, recognize that if you’re a white person, you’re a person of privilege,” he says. “My reality is very different from someone else’s reality, [which is] largely based on the color of their skin.”
Training is important, but hiring staff that reflects the diversity of a school’s population plays an even more important role in creating cultural competencies, says Karla Silvestre of Silver Spring, co-chair of the MCPS Latino Student Achievement Action Group and a current school board candidate.
Smith says MCPS understands the need for its teaching staff to better reflect its student population. Faced with a nationwide teacher shortage, the district is hoping to grow its own by encouraging members of its much more diverse staff of about 9,500 support professionals to become MCPS teachers through the use of tuition support programs and connections with state colleges and universities. This year, 100 support professionals are involved in teacher preparation programs, he says.
“They are more like our students economically, racially, culturally, linguistically, experientially than anyone else in the community. They represent our student population,” Smith says. “If they want to become a teacher, we’re going to help them.”
As Montgomery Blair High School’s graduation ceremony unfolded at the University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center on June 5, Student Government Association President Alix Swann sat in a folding chair on the stage, watching her 700 or so classmates parade by. She wore a black tassel around her neck, marking her successful completion of the school’s prestigious Communication Arts Program (CAP).
“I was noticing how many kids of color were walking across the stage that I had never seen in my years at Blair,” says Swann, who is African-American. “And a lot of the people I did know who were walking across the stage were white kids from the [Communication Arts Program], so I was thinking of how much of Blair that I’d missed out on by being in [CAP] and by just taking classes with that same group of people who I saw all the time.”
Swann’s experience at Blair highlighted one of the issues raised by the Metis Associates report, which found that while high school programs like CAP—as well as centers for highly gifted elementary school students and magnets for those in middle school—did increase the diversity at their home schools, selective admissions processes ended up creating “a school within a school.” Such programs enrolled more white, Asian and higher-income students and fewer low-income students and students of color than the schools that host the programs.
The report also found that information about the programs was not reaching minority and low-income communities, and that selection processes may disadvantage families who may not know about application deadlines and requirements or be able to effectively advocate for their children when parent recommendations are required. Also, there weren’t enough seats in the programs to meet the demand, the report said.
After the report was released, Smith says, MCPS began focusing on increasing opportunities for all students to access enriched instruction, whether through choice and magnet programs or in classrooms at their own schools.
MCPS turned to universal screening to identify highly able students at both the elementary and middle school levels, resulting in more students accessing enriched and accelerated instruction. During the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years, nearly 4,000 students were assessed for invitations to magnet programs offered at Eastern and Takoma Park middle schools—a huge increase over the 1,400 or so who applied previously—in an effort to increase diversity.
All 80 elementary schools in the enrollment area of the magnet programs were represented, and the assessed students were more reflective of the demographics in those schools, according to MCPS. As a result, 40 African-American students were invited to the magnet programs in 2018 for the next school year versus 26 or so in 2017 and 36 Hispanic students were invited versus 25 the year before. The number of Asian students receiving invitations dropped by about 20 percent to 70. The number of white students increased from 96 to 113. The total number of students invited to Eastern was 149 and 137 for Takoma Park.
In addition, MCPS announced this past spring that two enriched and accelerated courses for highly able students would be offered at middle schools in the enrollment area in the 2018-2019 school year.
Smith says MCPS also needs to figure out how to better integrate magnet programs into schools so that magnet students don’t end up being in separate populations. “We ought to be looking at those sorts of choices because it doesn’t work when you just say, ‘Well, we’re gonna take 100 students and put them in the middle of a 500-student middle school and essentially they’ll get a very different experience than the other 400 kids. That doesn’t work.”
The school system is also working on changing perceptions that have developed about the quality of the high schools in the Downcounty and Northeast consortiums and have affected student decisions about which schools to attend. Created in 1998, the Northeast Consortium consists of Paint Branch, Springbrook and James Hubert Blake high schools. The Downcounty Consortium (DCC), created in 2004, includes Northwood, Montgomery Blair, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy and Wheaton high schools.
Students are assigned to schools that offer signature programs and freshmen academies based on their ranking of choices and other factors, including gender, socioeconomic status and the capacities of the high schools.
Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation says the idea behind the consortiums was solid—“create a zone in which families can choose a variety of options, and then socioeconomic indicators are a factor in how students are placed.” But by not including communities such as Bethesda, Potomac and Chevy Chase, the consortiums’ boundaries were drawn “in a way that wasn’t as inclusive of the socioeconomic diversity of the county as it could have been.”
Over the years, those who live in the consortiums’ communities have developed ideas about the qualities of each school. Plus, some families would rather keep their children in their neighborhood school than make them travel farther to attend another that might have an appealing program.
“Perception plays a big part. There is a ranking in the DCC of which school is better and which is worse,” says Montgomery Blair PTSA President Frances Frost, who wonders whether the consortiums should be abolished since they aren’t serving to integrate students. “How different is that school than if it just went back to being a neighborhood school? How many resources are drawn away from Kennedy and Wheaton because of the perception that Blair is the premier school? If all the kids went back to their neighborhood school, would Kennedy have a stronger math program?”
Harris, the MCCPTA president, says she learned during a meeting with parents from several high school clusters a few years ago that families would rather see an improvement in their neighborhood schools than have MCPS develop more magnet programs that would force children to travel. “People said, ‘Let’s get rid of all the programs and make every school excellent,’ ” she says. “I wasn’t expecting the conversation to go in that direction. To me, that was eye-opening.”
Jeannie Franklin, director of the school system’s Division of Consortia Choice and Application Program Services, says MCPS is reviewing the consortiums’ programs to see what is working and what isn’t. She acknowledges that perceptions about the schools exist, especially in the DCC. Her department has been working on marketing the benefits of each consortium school to the participating communities and traveling to middle and elementary schools to better educate students about their options.