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ROCKVILLE – Area students and parents say they have concerns over school segregation, as Montgomery County Public Schools seeks input on an upcoming review of school boundary line selection.
The concerns came up on March 7 at a hearing event, hosted by the Montgomery County Board of Education, that allowed students, parents and residents to speak about what consultants should consider during their examination. Student member of the board, Ananya Tadikonda, first proposed to the board a resolution for Superintendent of Schools Jack Smith to hire a consultant to review school boundaries, during a Jan. 8 board of education meeting.
Tadikonda wrote that if MCPS ended up changing some boundaries in the county, it could increase diversity in classrooms and reduce class size by distributing students between the schools.
The demographic breakdown of student population is as follows: 32.3 percent of students are Hispanic or Latino; 28.3 percent are White; 21.4 percent are Black or African American and 14.4 percent are Asian, according to the MCPS 2017-2018 Annual report.
Students who are Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaskan Native; or two or more races make up less than or equal to 5 percent of the overall student population.
Compared with the 2016-2017 school year, the population of Hispanic or Latino children changed the most, increasing by 2.2 percentage points.
“There are many schools in MCPS with adjacent school boundaries that have both significant disparities in socioeconomic and racial demographics and disparities in facility utilization,” Tadikonda wrote.
Tadikonda said reconsidering the boundaries for some schools could help them lessen the difference in diversity or in facility utilization between schools.
The boundary review and hearing for the scope of the review follow the board’s taking final action on Policy FAA, Educational Facilities Planning, in September. The policy would guide staff recommendations in decisions addressing overcrowding of schools and planning future use of buildings to take equity into consideration – specifically, any decisions “regarding selecting sites for new schools, changing school boundaries, establishing geographic student choice assignment plans or closing on consolidating schools.”
The board wrote in the proposal to have the superintendent hire a consultant that it believes increased diversity “benefits” students’ education. Board members said they hope that planning decisions, over time, “will create increased opportunities for students to attend schools where they may attain the significant educational benefits of the broad diversity of students in Montgomery County,” according to the September 2018 version of Policy FAA.
Michael Solomon, a Springbrook junior and one of the presidents of Montgomery County Students for Change, mentioned the idea of segregation in schools, citing the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case, and asked that the consultants consider the impact of locations of boundaries on race and on socioeconomics.
“Given that this is an opportunity for our county to finally translate overused rhetoric into tangible action, I urge the board to consider redrawing our current school boundaries with the goal of combating de-facto segregation and further diversifying our schools,” Solomon said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Of the 10 students who testified, most were from consortia schools, which tend to have higher levels of non-white children and the most applicants for free and reduced-price meals.
“It is important to note that no specific boundaries are under consideration,” said Board President Shebra Evans at the start of the public hearing.
Richard Montgomery High School sophomore Nick Asante told the board he supported the study and that he believes education cannot be “the great equalizer” at present because the schools are not equal in the educational experience they provide to students.
“When we look at the top-ranked schools in our county, they’re the schools with the highest white and Asian populations and lowest black and Hispanic populations,” said Asante. “They’re the schools with the least amount of ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) and FARM (Free and Reduced-Price Meals) students.”
Changes to the process of deciding school boundaries likely would affect future generations of students, commenters said. Boundaries change over time, usually with a school addition or the construction of a new school. Any changes to the process would affect where future generations of students attend school, including high school.
“When we look at the cost of housing for a house in the (Albert) Einstein (High School) cluster as compared with a similar house just minutes away in the Walter Johnson (High School) cluster, the difference is shocking,” Asante said. “And what’s driving a wedge in the pricing for these homes? Schools.”
Asante said he believes that disparities between the schools in the county’s different high school clusters must be “eradicated.”
Student Celine Apenteng did not use the word “segregation,” but agreed with other students that some minority students tend to be grouped in a few schools, which she said is a problem.
“When conducting this boundary analysis, you must take into account the type of character you are enabling by allowing the severe isolation of different races. Diversity has been proven to have a strong positive impact on students in schools, proving that students will work better in a more-diverse environment,” Apenteng told the board.
Montgomery County’s history with boundary restricting dates back a long time ago, and for some, it is clear and obvious to the student body. Zoe Tishaev, Clarksburg High School junior and student member of Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations (MCCPTA), said other schools have a majority of students who are the same race or socioeconomic background.
Tishaev said changes need to be made at all levels, citing the proposal to change the name of Colonel E. Brooke Lee Middle School by Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro. Most students attending Col. E. Brooke Lee are minorities.
“Colonel Edward Brooke Lee was a Montgomery County statesman, a historical figure and a racist,” Tishaev said. “His segregationist zoning policies may very well have aided the creation of the racial divides we are here addressing today.”
Due to the potential scope of student impact, parents urged the board and staff to think carefully about whether reconsidering boundary procedures was the best and most affordable way to help student academic performance.
MCPS parent Yiwei Li said transparency, including making decisions and criteria public, must be a part of the boundary assessment.
“The analysis reports, the underlying research methods, the data analysis, and scientific basis for the conclusions should also be made public,” Lee said. “Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot afford to make a mistake on this and use 165,000 children to run an experiment.”
Parent Yin Zheng questioned the decision to review boundaries, and said he was skeptical changing boundaries would help improve student achievement.
“I believe that it is a costly project, and I hope it truly benefits students in Montgomery County, helping students perform well as they have done for the past many years,” Zheng said.
Nadia Hashimi, a pediatrician, children’s novel author and an MCPS parent, asked questions about the consultants and their history. Hashimi said she wanted to know if the consultants were equipped to compare the potential of boundary changes to helping student achievement with other solutions.
“Let’s be sure that the plan is based on sound reasoning, solid analysis of reliable and applicable data, and doesn’t come at the cost of our environment, the sanity of families and the critical daytime hours of children in their formative years,” Hashimi said.
Board Vice President Patricia O’Neill said the board also will be accepting written comments and suggestions about the process via email. O’Neill confirmed MCPS has not selected any consultants to review the boundary decision-making process.
The superintendent will hire the consultant, and the board of education must approve it, according to Chris Cram, a supervisor and director of web services in the MCPS department of communications.
“There isn’t a fixed deadline (for selecting a vendor) at the moment, but they are working very quickly,” said Cram, on behalf of MCPS.
Staff plan to work on creating a request for a proposal as soon as possible, Cram said.