Due to budget cuts Montgomery County Public Schools will be dealing with race problems in four fewer schools this year.
A Montgomery County Public Schools program bringing a discussion of race to school leadership will be working with only 20 schools in the county this year versus 24 last year.
The Study Circles program equips school leaders to include the topic of race in staff meetings as a means to decrease referrals, lessen the achievement gap and increase parental involvement.
The program has existed in MCPS for more than 10 years.
Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers said a member of his staff and the chief operating officer’s staff participated in the program during the last two years.
Study Circles staff train administrators and academic resource teachers to help other staffers with race problems.
John Landesman , coordinator of the MCPS Study Circles Program encourages school education leaders and teachers to view school situations through a “racial lens.”
Discussion facilitator Deanna Kuhney said each school discussion group tends to come up with its own definition of a racial lens.
The general concept is a school’s staff will keep the cultural backgrounds and abilities of the school’s students in the school in mind in their professions.
Troy Boddy, director of the MCPS equity initiatives unit, said the school system’s equity initiatives are in response to a disparity Hispanic and African-American students’ and success shown by Asian and white students.
Study Circles, through part of the office of community engagement and partnerships, addresses possible contributing factors to equity issues, from school policies to misconceptions in staff.
“Sometimes what’s disrespectful for you might not be disrespectful for me,” Boddy said.
If a student were to raise his voice at a teacher, one teacher may ask the student to lower his voice so they could talk through the matter while another teacher might consider the raising of voice to be disrespectful and refer the student to the principal’s office.
“We definitely respond to a student behavior in very different ways, and so the challenge would be, How do we respond in a way that is very consistent and fair to all students?” Boddy said.
Members of for Montgomery County Council of parent teachers association’s board of directors will be participating in a Study Circle next month, said Melissa McKenna, MCCPTA Capital Improvements Plan chairwoman.
McKenna explained Landesman approached the MCCPTA and asked if members wanted to participate in the program and they approved of the idea.
“That’s how much we think it’s important,” McKenna said. “We’re going to actually participate in it.”
Landesman would not confirm the MCCPTA will start a Study Circle because the Study Circles department is in the middle of the planning process.
“To put something out before it was confirmed was impact our trust,” he said.
Study Circle participants openly share beliefs and personal understanding of other cultural backgrounds and then other participants could shed light on those perceptions.
Such conversations require a significant level of trust between members of the discussion. Sometimes teachers, parents or students participate in the Study Circles to add their perspectives.
One principal in the program explained the conversations help identify obstacles that may come in the way of academic achievement of minorities.
As a result of the seminar, “We’re able to have difficult conversations about some personal perceptions we may have that could inhibit some students from learning in our schools,” Richard Montgomery High School Principal said Damon Montelleone. “It’s a tough topic to talk about, and that’s the goal of that. And once we can get that out in the open with leadership, now we can go down into our PLC, our content teams and have those conversations through the medium of instruction.”
Academic department resource teachers, counselors, assistant principals and the school principal attend a two-day seminar with the Study Circles team to develop skills such as the capacity to discuss the topic of race with other staff during team meetings.
After having monthly meetings regulated by two facilitators a couple times, staff can work together to figure out policies, practices or habits which may cause one social group to have an advantage over the other and then brainstorm solutions to those.
Landesman said Study Circles teach educational leaders to hold each other accountable and make sure the topic of race is discussed at the regular team meetings.
One of the schools participating in Study Circles this year is Richard Montgomery High School.
“What we’re looking to do here is, can we as a leadership team appreciate the barriers that some students bring to our classrooms and then build relationships with those students to be able to navigate those barriers,” said Montelleone.
The Study Circles staff work with the education leaders and administration, who then take the strategies and tools they learned to the school teachers.
Kuhney said when school faculties feel comfortable discussing the topic of race, faculty members can work together to find come up with strategies to implement within the school to reduce the achievement gap.
“Our experience is racial conversation does not often occur, so we provide opportunities to have racial conversation in a productive and effective way as it applies to student achievement and parent involvement,” said Kuhney.
“Over time, that student will go from perhaps needing an extrinsically motivation to be successful to being intrinsically motivated because they know the relationship with the adult is there,” said Monteleone.
In addition to forming relationships with students, teachers at Richard Montgomery will use student voice data to hear directly from the students about the barriers students may be encountering.
Staffers last year asked students questions about what made them want to go to class or ways teachers reached out and built relationships with them.
“We need teachers to be knowledgeable that this is what they need to be doing every day, and not just be masters of their curriculum,” said Monteleone.