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
Talk of changing school boundaries to produce schools that are more balanced racially and economically is bound to inflame passions on both sides of the issue, especially if the changes could impact the district’s wealthier and highest-performing schools, such as those in Bethesda and Potomac.
“The concern about border changes in large part is fueled by assumptions about race and class and wealth, and that drives anxiety about changing expectations, and I don’t think that’s valid,” says Floreen, who lives in Garrett Park. “There’s this holy alliance to school boundaries that we can’t justify going forward.”
Research shows that lower-income students who attend schools in wealthier areas do better than those who attend schools where poverty rates are high, so opening up the boundaries of schools in wealthier communities could help close the achievement gap, Kahlenberg and other experts say.
But in a county as large as Montgomery, creating economic and racial balance is a thorny problem. “You have schools where they are. It’s not like you can pick them up and move them,” Harris says. And if busing students longer distances to magnet programs at schools outside their neighborhoods is not a desirable option for parents, the questions become: “How do you make sure a school serving that community is not monochromatic even though the neighborhood is? How do you make all of our schools representative of the diversity of our county, not where they sit?” she says.
Highlighting the challenges, O’Neill, the school board member, notes that high school clusters that have room for more students, such as Poolesville, Damascus and Magruder, aren’t contiguous to those that are bursting at the seams, such as schools in the eastern part of the county or the Walter Johnson High School cluster. “That said, there is nothing that can prevent us from doing comprehensive, turn-over-the-whole-county boundary changes, but it would be incredibly painful,” she says.
As parent activists and educators point out, boundary changes could help integration issues, but students are often better served when they can remain in neighborhood schools, where they have the support of family and friends and their communities. Removing students from their neighborhoods to attend schools that may be in wealthier areas but located farther away can disenfranchise families if they are unable to engage with a new school because of logistical and other issues—and that becomes its own form of inequity, they say.
“As a parent, I love neighborhood schools and I love that my kids can walk to school. I love that I can engage with the school,” says Potts, the MCCPTA vice president.
Still, she acknowledges that keeping kids in their neighborhood schools “does dictate one school may be very brown and one school may be very white.” But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as the district focuses on providing each school with equal learning opportunities and quality staff and leadership, says Potts, whose community is home to families from West and East Africa.
Smith says school officials have not discussed wholesale boundary changes, but the school board is reviewing a proposed policy shift as part of a set of changes concerning long-range planning for educational facilities that would allow MCPS more latitude in creating boundaries for new schools. The change—which would permit MCPS to look outside a high school cluster and consider adjacent schools when redistricting for a new school—would give the district “the option anywhere we can to create more equitable and more diverse student bodies by income, by race, by language, and I think that will make a powerful difference if we have the courage then to do the work,” Smith told the council on that morning in May.
He says redistricting can help create more economically balanced schools “even though we’re not going to get to a perfect balance anywhere ever at any point because it’s not possible.” FARMS rates in the district’s elementary schools during the 2017-2018 school year range from less than 5 percent at schools in Potomac to more than 70 percent at schools in Silver Spring, Gaithersburg and Germantown, with an average of about 38 percent across schools. That’s far above the maximum of 25 percent recommended in a 2015 University of Maryland study on school equity, Smith says.
Parent advocates say sparks are sure to fly when MCPS determines enrollment boundaries for the planned 2022 reopening of the former Charles W. Woodward High School in Rockville to relieve crowding at Walt Whitman, Walter Johnson and B-CC high schools and the Downcounty Consortium schools. Schools in this consortium had FARMS rates in the 2017-2018 school year ranging from 36 percent at Blair to nearly 53 percent at Northwood, while schools in higher-income communities range from less than 5 percent at Whitman and Churchill to 11 percent at B-CC.
Changing school boundaries is “one of the most emotional and difficult things school districts have to engage in,” Smith says. “You want people to love their schools—that’s not a bad thing—but what you don’t want is for some people to think it serves their interest to have some children in the school and some children not. And that is something I think we have to push back on.”
In 2016, the process of determining enrollment boundaries for Silver Creek Middle School in Kensington, which opened in September 2017 to relieve overcrowding at Westland Middle School in the B-CC high school cluster, took on racial undertones as parents pushed for their preferred choice of seven options presented by MCPS. Some parents who wanted to keep the FARMS rate low at the new school advocated for boundary options that would have required students from Rock Creek Forest Elementary School in Chevy Chase, on the far eastern side of the cluster, to continue traveling about 6 heavily trafficked miles to attend Westland in Bethesda rather than about 3 miles to Silver Creek.
In testimony to the school board that November, Rock Creek parent and education civil rights attorney Dan Greenspahn urged the board not to adopt an option that would exclude Rock Creek Forest from a list of elementary schools that would send students to Silver Creek.
The option “imposes all the burdens of lengthy one-way busing on the cluster’s lowest-income school neighborhood with the most students of color and students learning English,” he said in written testimony provided to the board. “That is an unfair and inequitable choice. It raises civil rights concerns and is opposed by the vast majority of [Rock Creek Forest] families.” The board eventually adopted an option that included sending Rock Creek students to Silver Creek, except those in the school’s Spanish Immersion program, who would continue to go to Westland.
Smith and others note that even if redistricting were to achieve a desired balance, changing demographics could unravel a district’s best efforts over time, so that’s why MCPS must also focus on providing rigorous education and the supports that students need at each school. “People move and shift and you get the folks who’ve raised their kids and graduated and new families moving in of a different economic level, or cultural race or language—and all of a sudden what you did five years ago that looked so promising has completely changed,” Smith says.
School board member Jeanette Dixon, an educator for 30 years, says that while integration should be the goal, she wants all MCPS parents to understand that students who are well off and those who live in poverty can learn much from each other. “Our schools are wonderful, and students get a great education, but they should not be afraid of students who are different or affected by poverty,” she says. “The diversity of our schools [is] our strength.”
Julie Rasicot of Silver Spring is the managing editor of Bethesda Beat. Both of her daughters attended Blair High School.