SILVER SPRING – A crowd of more than 500 people participated in a debate about how to close achievement and opportunity gaps in county public schools in a radio event that will be aired this week on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show.
An often-heated discussion took place as Nnamdi paced around the Silver Spring Civic Center on Feb. 26, alternatively pointing his microphone at school board members, administrators, teachers, students and parents.
The evening began with four members of White Oak’s Springbrook High School’s debating team discussing whether increasing diversity through changing school boundaries or improving opportunities for all at each school is the best way to provide equal educational experiences in a school district that is 31 percent Hispanic, 28 percent white and 22 percent African American.
Maria Navarro, Montgomery County Public Schools chief academic officer, declared that changing boundaries is not the answer as much as providing “options of rigor in every school in the county.”
Board of Education President Shebra Evans said she believed the answer is to “look at everything through an equity lens” and make sure that students in all 207 schools in the county are given the same opportunities.
“I would not be on this board” if she didn’t believe that MCPS was doing a good job, she said.
She noted that since 2010, the number of students in the county has increased by 20,000.
Chief Operating Officer Andrew Zuckerman noted that “the county and our demographics are quite different than they were 20 or 30 years ago.”
He called that a strength, which has led to problems with space in school buildings and diversity issues. District officials currently are gathering input from the community before deciding how to act, he said.
The discussion often grew intense throughout the 90-minute taping, which was in honor of Nnamdi’s 20th year on the air. Breanna McDonald, an African American student, said she has felt isolated through her three-plus years at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, where the overwhelming majority of students are white.
Also speaking passionately was one mother who holds three jobs so that she could buy a house in the Churchill High School district of Potomac to provide her four children with a great education.
Why are there no affordable rental properties in that district? she wondered.
“Stable, quality, affordable housing” is needed, said Matt Losak, chair of a Silver Spring renters’ alliance. He noted that the percentage of county residents living in rental properties has risen from 23 percent in 2007 to “nearly 40 percent today.”
Losak said he did not think that was positive, noting, “Kids do better in stable housing.”
A teacher at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring discussed how different his job was compared to that of a teacher at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.
“We are constantly stretched thin,” he said of teachers at Kennedy. More of his students need one-on-one assistance and have difficulty passing state tests than at Walter Johnson, he said.
Oscar Alvarenga, a parent active at Summit Hall Elementary School in Gaithersburg, said he believed that the answer to improving schools will not be found by busing students and ending neighborhood schools “just to make a school check off on a box” on diversity.
Several students who lined up to speak talked about the need for smaller class sizes and more diversity through more than just ethnicity ratios.
One mother with a student in Wootton High School in Rockville said the schools “are failing us,” due to overcrowding and walls that are crumbling.
Denise Young, a mother of three, suggested school officials look into “institutional racism,” which causes some students of color not to even be considered for special programs.
What is needed, she said, is the “political will and the community will to support all our students.”
A senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville agreed, adding that magnet programs are filled with a majority of white and Asian students. What are missing are most of the students who receive free and reduced meals, the student said.