Hundreds of students march in Montgomery, calling attention to academic achievement gap


Tiffany McLeary, 16, of Silver Spring holds Amayah Varfley, 3, of Germantown, on her shoulders during the March to Close the Gap. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Hundreds of Montgomery County students marched more than a mile through Rockville on Sunday in a call to close the achievement gap that has left black and Hispanic students in the high-performing district trailing their white and Asian peers on measures of academic success.

The spirited march, which started at the school system’s headquarters, ended at the pillared entrance to Montgomery County’s old district courthouse, where throngs of teenagers and their supporters spoke out about an academic divide that has persisted for years.

“This is truly a historical moment,” said Jorge Sanchez, 17, one of the organizers, addressing a cheering crowd of more than 400, after a 1.1-mile procession on a sunlit afternoon. Passing cars honked in support. Students chanted and waved handmade posters, and most wore black T-shirts reading “United Are We.”

Many of those involved said they wanted to change perceptions of minority students and demonstrate the intensity of student concern. The event was organized by students in minority scholars programs at 11 of Montgomery County’s 25 high schools.

“This is saying we can do it, and you don’t have to live in that stereotype,” said Charyssa Norris, 17, of Watkins Mill High School, as she marched with Salim Addrey, 17.

The message of the day was everywhere — “Close the Gap” — and those who spoke on the courthouse steps issued a passionate call for greater awareness and action from school leaders, parents, community organizations and students themselves.

“The problem is clear. It’s been researched. It’s been studied over and over again,” said Mike Williams, a teacher at Walter Johnson High School and a founder of the school’s minority scholars program. “Unfortunately, for years, we’ve just been watching and waiting and kind of hoping and wishing it away, perhaps afraid to truly confront it.”

“We are here today, in 2014, not just as a program, not just as a group, but as a movement,” he said.

The march comes as the achievement gap has been a touchpoint in county budget hearings and political debates — and not long after a county oversight report found Montgomery County high schools are increasingly separated by income, race and ethnicity.

Montgomery County’s efforts to close the gap between high-poverty and low-poverty schools have not worked, said the report, which asserted that the county had “lost ground in achieving its racial and economic integration goals.”

Against this backdrop, many involved said the march seemed more timely. Students came up with the idea last fall and prepared for months, creating signs, recording two videos, writing chants and sending home fliers.

Many organizers, such as Angelique Ryan, 17, said they hoped the event would bring broad attention to underlying problems.

“Somewhere in a minority child’s life, a ball was dropped, and we need to pick the ball back up,” the teenager said. “This is a problem, and we need to do something to fix it.”

The gap is not unique to Montgomery. But the district’s gap by race and ethnicity is stark on an array of indicators, including high school dropout rates, academic eligibility for extracurricular activities, SAT scores and Advanced Placement participation.

In Montgomery County’s Class of 2013, for example, more than 80 percent of white and Asian students took at least one AP exam, while just 39.6 percent of black students and 51.6 percent of Hispanic students did, according to district figures.

The four-year cohort high school dropout rate is 3 percent or less for white and Asian students, compared with 8.7 percent for black students and 12.2 percent for Hispanic students, state data show.

Vilma Nájera, a teacher and department head who leads the minority scholars program at Clarksburg High School, said she hoped the march would make the issue more personal.

“People think of it as test scores, but they don’t know what it means and what it looks like,” she said. “These numbers have faces and names.

“I hope this becomes a real issue for people, and I hope people understand the severity of it,” she said. “When the data is as predictable as it is, there is something wrong with what we’re doing.”

Superintendent Joshua P. Starr joined students at the event, as did all members of the school board. In his remarks, Starr invoked hope and hard work, urging students to help make a change. “There is no silver bullet,” he said. “I wish there was.”

School Board President Philip Kauffman (At Large) assured students that elected officials are “standing there with you” and are committed to working with students, staff, parents and the community to “do whatever it takes to close the achievement gap.”

In thinking about the gap, some students focused on getting classmates to study more. Other students said more effort is needed from all corners of the community, including school leaders.

“I know it’s not something you can snap your fingers and change,” said Xavier Hill, 17, of Thomas S. Wootton High School, “but I think they need to do more than just put some hope into it.”

Many organizers also said they would like to see more funding and an expansion of the minority scholars program, which started in 2005 at Walter Johnson and has since spread to 10 more high schools.

Williams said the impact at Walter Johnson is clear both in greater participation and performance in honors and AP courses, and in more minority involvement in extracurricular activities.

“The march is just the beginning,” said Gabriella Bianchi, 16, of Wootton High. “Our work doesn’t end with this march.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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