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Posted at 06:52 PM ET, 07/22/2011

A math problem in Montgomery doesn’t add up

I have often said that Montgomery County has one of the best school systems in America. I believe it with all my heart. Unkind people might suggest that is because I am selling a house in the county and want the best price. That is not it at all.

But when I talk to parents like Charlene Ward, I have to acknowledge the troubling fact that even the best school systems can have some bad habits.

I have never met Ward, but have been exchanging emails with her since June 2009. In one of my columns that summer I wrote about her fourth-grade son, accelerated in math at a Silver Spring elementary school, who was given an awful choice for his fifth grade math class. He could either get up more than an hour early to be bused to a middle school for an advanced class, or stay at his elementary school and retake the math course he took the year before.

This seemed stupid to me.

When I asked the school system about it, I got a smart note from the superintendent for curriculum and instruction saying there had been a misunderstanding. The school would find a way to give Ward’s son and two dozen other children an advanced course at their home school.

What a nice ending. Problem solved. I triumph again.

My self-congratulatory mood didn’t last. Ward spoiled it for me last month by revealing that the same problem had recurred, this time with her daughter instead of her son. I might have complained that the fault was Ward’s for producing these bright children. Instead I read her email with mounting dismay.

Parents of students in the accelerated fourth grade math class at that same elementary school were informed the last day of school, in a letter sent via student backpacks, that if they wanted their children to be in the accelerated class for fifth grade they had to be bused to a middle school. That would extend their school day by 90 minutes and ruin their chance to participate in safety patrol, which I remember was a big deal when I was 10.

If they did not take the busing option, the parents were told, their children would have to repeat the class they took in fourth grade.

Last November, Ward said, she tried to get ahead of the problem by asking the principal for a chat. She got no response. After she got the bad news this June, she met with the principal but nothing came of it. A 20-minute phone call with the next level up also yielded zilch.

Is Ward one of those whiny parents who are so common in places like Montgomery County? Is she the sort of person who never counts her blessings and fails to see how much better off she is than 95 percent of the parents in America? Maybe, but then I am one of those people too. I suspect many others like us are reading this column.

Surely, with the resources available in that wonderfully equipped and staffed school system, somebody could find a way to keep those students moving forward in math without yanking them out of their school and extending their day.

That is exactly what happened. I asked Brian Edwards, chief of staff to the superintendent, what could be done. Within 24 hours many wise people who work for Montgomery County had come up with a solution. Wade’s daughter and the 16 other advanced math fifth-graders at the school won’t have to get on a bus to take the next level course.

I still wonder why Ward’s small issue was so hard to resolve, and why this could happen twice in a row, at the same school, and to the same family. Edwards said that Montgomery, like other school systems, has suffered sharp cuts, losing 1,280 positions. That makes the schools less flexible when dealing with problems like Ward’s.

Parents need to do what Ward did---keep asking questions and contact as many people as possible. I think Montgomery parents should be glad for what their school system can do for their kids, If they hit a road block, as they will, I hope there will always be room for some creative solution.

By  |  06:52 PM ET, 07/22/2011

 
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