Montgomery schools chief: Close achievement gaps, expand innovation

Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua P. Starr delivered his yearly “State of the Schools” address Monday, sounding a familiar theme of student hope as he called for collaboration and “embracing the new” in Maryland’s largest school system.

Starr said that, in the year ahead, innovation is needed to address both new challenges that arise and those that have persisted for years, maintaining that the district of more than 151,000 students is “well-positioned to do this work.”

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He cited the district’s successes — including high SAT scores and strong early-reading proficiency — but also highlighted its chronic achievement gap in test scores by race and ethnicity. Black and Hispanic students score lower than their white and Asian peers.

“We have much work left to do,” he said. “Despite our best efforts, we have not been able to reach some children, and many of them are students of color, students with special needs, students who are learning English, or students who are poor.”

Starr noted that while African-American and Hispanic students outperform their peers nationally on the SAT, they score more than 300 points lower on average than white classmates in Montgomery County.

Black students also are suspended far more often than their white and Asian peers, Starr said. African Americans represent 21 percent of the countywide student population, but 54 percent of all non-mandatory suspensions.

“We simply must do better,” he said. “And we can do better.” He said the strategies of the past had been effective, but “will not get us to the top of the mountain.”

As an example of innovation that may make a difference, Starr pointed to Wheaton High School, which is getting both a new building and a new educational program. It will become the county’s first high school designed for project-based learning, he said.

“Innovation happens through collaboration among people who are closest to the problem,” he said.

Starr spoke of efforts to designate “innovation schools,” where a case management approach will be taken to address each school’s needs, and “interventions schools,” which focus on children who struggle with academics, family issues and social-emotional problems.

It was Starr’s second such yearly address, delivered in a morning program that brought 750 people to the Strathmore concert hall in North Bethesda on Veterans Day. Students from across the county performed — a poet, a dancing troupe, multiple choirs — for those who attended.

 
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