Montgomery schools may explore boundary changes to address achievement gap


Joshua Starr, shown in his previous district in Connecticut, is the Montgomery school superintendent. (Jennifer S. Altman/for The Washington Post)

The Montgomery County Council pressed school officials Monday to consider shifting attendance boundaries to make schools more economically and racially diverse — a potential and politically volatile remedy for a persistent achievement gap.

In Montgomery, the question of how students are assigned to neighborhood schools until now has largely been absent from the debate over how to close the troubling achievement gap. Such plans, like the one currently being considered for D.C. schools, inevitably trigger rancorous community debates. Boundary changes in the 151,000-student system have focused on accommodating enrollment increases and the opening of new schools.

But several council members told Superintendent Joshua P. Starr at a meeting of the council’s education committee on Monday that the idea of shifting students to address a gap in academic achievement merits serious consideration.

Starr said the possibility would be considered in a consultant’s study on school choice that the district will commission later this year.

“We have to throw everything at this,” council President Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) said after the 31 / 2-hour session, which drew nearly every member of the council and school board. “I understand it creates some nervousness and uncertainty. But if it helps us to get to our goal,” it must be considered.

Montgomery schools have experienced a major demographic shift over the past decade. Forty nine percent of students are black or Hispanic. More than a third of the student population is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Most minority and low-income students live and attend school in the eastern part of the county, and their schools for the most part have the lowest test scores.

A council staff report released in April by the council’s Office of Legislative Oversight, found that students at high-poverty schools were nine percent less likely to graduate on time and 45 percent less likely to earn at least one passing score on an AP exam than peers at low-poverty schools. They were also 56 percent less likely to score a 1650 or better on the SAT.

But the study also showed that economically disadvantaged students who attended schools with a higher proportion of middle-class or affluent students did better on several key measures. Low-income students in low-poverty high schools were more likely to be college- or career-ready than their economic counterparts in poorer schools. They were also only half as likely to be suspended or drop out.

The findings are consistent with other research showing that placing poor students in higher-achieving, lower-poverty schools is a more effective way to boost academic performance than pouring extra funds into racially and economically isolated schools.

When Board of Education President Philip Kauffman acknowledged that boundary changes “have not really been the focus of the school system” in earlier efforts to address the achievement gap, council member Cherrie Branson (D-Silver Spring-Eastern County) demanded to know why not.

“I’m very troubled by the notion that boundaries are off limits. We change boundaries all the time,” Branson said, referring to adjustments in state legislative and council districts. “People don’t like it usually, but it happens.”

Starr described closing the achievement gap as “a moral imperative” for the county and said boundary overhauls have never been off limits. But he said the matter was “a complex undertaking” that has to be approached with great caution and in full partnership with families and other stakeholders. He added that there is no single solution to the problem of educational inequity.

After the hearing, school board member Christopher Barclay rejected the idea of boundary changes, saying he was offended by the notion that students of color could thrive only if surrounded by more middle-class and affluent whites.

“I don’t believe in white supremacy,” said Barclay, who is African American. He said without improvements in teacher quality and other reforms, especially in struggling schools, boundary changes would simply redistribute poor children, essentially hiding “pockets of need” inside more racially diverse schools.

“What gets missed in this is, what are the abilities of those teachers to teach those children?” Barclay said. “I don’t want kids shipped all over the world.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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