ROCKVILLE- Students and parents have marched against it, leaders have studied it, and officials pay millions of dollars to addressing it. Despite efforts to close the achievement gap, county officials say performance disparities persist.
“Poverty causes the achievement gap, when we fix poverty, we fix the achievement gap. Short of that, it will be an ongoing commitment by all school systems in the country to continually work with our high-needs student population to make sure that they’re getting the education they need to survive,” said Therese Gibson, Parent Teacher Student Association president for Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.
Montgomery County Public Schools has identified 11 out of 25 high schools as high poverty schools: Gaithersburg, Seneca Valley, Watkins Mill, Montgomery Blair, Northwood, Kennedy, Einstein, Wheaton, Paint Branch, Springbrook, and Blake High Schools. The schools have a higher number of black and Hispanic students, students receiving English for Speakers of Other Languages and students receiving Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS).
According to MCPS statistics, 37.2 percent of MCPS students are white, 23.4 percent are African American, 23.4 percent are Hispanic, 15.7 percent are Asian, and less than .3 percent are American Indian. Statistically, poorer Hispanic and black students begin kindergarten hearing 3 million fewer words than their wealthier white and Asian counterparts. In high school, 80 percent of white and Asian students take at least one AP (Advanced Placement) exam compared to 51.6 percent of Hispanic students and 39 percent of African American students. Statistics from MCPS also show 40 percent of students in high poverty high schools were not academically eligible compared to 20 percent of students from low poverty high schools.
Byron Johns, chair of the education committee for the Montgomery County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said he meets with representatives for MCPS monthly and members of the MCPS administration attend the NAACP Parents Council’s monthly meetings. The Montgomery County chapter is the only NAACP chapter with a parent’s council in all county public schools. Johns said there is an NAACP representative in all 202 county schools.
“We’ve taken it upon ourselves to try to look at this issue in various facets. Parents have to be a part of the solution moving forward. This is not going to solve itself with a new initiative or anything it started last year. It is going to take sustained effort, which is one of the things we advocate for, to make sure the resources are applied consistently throughout multiple years to try to move this issue aside. It’s in the culture, not only in the schools but the county,” Johns said.
While statistics show African Americans lag behind their white, Asian, and even Hispanic counterparts, Johns said part of the Parents Council initiative is to educate African American parents about AP classes, college, advocacy programs, and MCPS discipline policies. Johns said he meets with MCPS superintendent Dr. Joshua Starr and other MCPS leaders quarterly.
“The reality is they have underfunded our minority schools and communities…there has not been a political will to help remedy that. When you are underfunded for decades, that doesn’t bring you back to say now, ‘we’re going to be equal and fair in funding’,” said Johns.
As African American leaders and organizations such as the NAACP and Black Greek Letter Organizations such as fraternities and sororities create tutoring and education initiatives to help disadvantaged students, Hispanic leaders also work with MCPS to create similar initiatives for their students.
In July the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region and Identity, Inc., both community organizations focused on educational advocacy, published “Connecting Youth to Opportunity”, a study related to the achievement of Latino students in MCPS schools. The study found foreign-born and undocumented students were more likely to drop out of school than American-born children. The study also showed students who did not have computers or quiet places to study were also at greater risk of dropping out of schools. Nearly 1,000 youth from three control groups were polled about their experiences.
Diego Uriburu, executive director of Identity Youth, an organization serving Latino youth and their families, said he is working with MCPS to develop a program that will address the problems identified in the study.
“We are developing a program that looks at all the different indicators. We’re going to have a strong parent component so the parents can get involved in their children’s education, work with the school system to improve the environment and try to identify this before the youth get to a critical point. We are working with the school system and the teachers union to develop culture competency training. When we spoke with the teachers union, some of the teachers seemed ill-equipped to meet the social and emotional indicators the youth come to class with and they don’t know what to do,” Uriburu said.
Montgomery Blair has a Hispanic population of nearly 30 percent, the highest percentage of any racial group accounted for in the school. Gibson said one of the problems the school encounters is a lack of bilingual staff for parents who only speak Spanish. Gibson said the Los Padres program offers college tours and panels in Spanish. The school also has the African American Student Achievement Program to help other students of color and their parents.
Gibson said the school is also working to teach secretaries and other school staff rudimentary Spanish phrases such as “I’m sorry a counselor who speaks Spanish isn’t available to speak with you right now, when is a right time to call back?”
“People come to this country because they want their children to get an education. It’s their dream for their children to go to college. That’s something that’s new to them. Their children are first generation college-goers,” Gibson said.