School Consortiums Assessed in Report

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 27, 2008

Montgomery County's high school consortiums, set up partly as a tool for desegregation, have done little to reverse racial isolation or white flight, according to a new report from a government oversight group released this week.

But school system leaders say the programs have succeeded in giving students a measure of choice about their education and have allowed administrators to shift school populations without a painful exercise in redrawing school boundaries.

Eight of the county's 25 high schools belong to two consortiums, which allow students to choose from a menu of programs and schools, rather than settle for a neighborhood school or compete for a selective magnet program.

"They do provide a lot of choice, and we get a lot of positive feedback from parents that they like having those options," said Marty Creel, director of enriched and innovative programs for the school system.

But the consortium programs have not done much to erase socioeconomic inequities, according to the 64-page report, released Tuesday by the county's Office of Legislative Oversight. It finds that "neither consortium reversed minority isolation nor improved socio-economic integration." Poverty rates have continued to increase at schools in the programs, sometimes at a faster rate than in the county as a whole. The percen tage of white students has dwindled at all eight schools, as in the county generally.

The Northeast Consortium of Blake, Paint Branch and Springbrook high schools began accepting "choice" applications in fall 1998. The Downcounty Consortium of Montgomery Blair, Einstein, Kennedy, Northwood and Wheaton high schools was initiated in 200 4.

Each consortium was launched to coincide with the opening of a school and engineered to help balance the demographic mix at each school: Families are encouraged to consider a variety of specialized programs and to apply outside their community, and some placement decisions are influenced by socioeconomics.

By eliminating boundaries and allowing students to choose a school, the school system was able to fill two new schools -- Blake and Northwood -- without ordering anyone to change schools. The Downcounty Consortium allowed school officials to lower enrollment at crowded Blair by several hundred students without outcry -- a significant feat, considering that Blair is regarded by some as the premier high school in the eastern end of the county.

School-system officials initially used race as a factor in assigning students to schools, but a court decision disallowed the practice in 1999. Since then, officials have made an attempt to sort applicants according to other socioeconomic factors.

But students have generally been allowed their first choice of school, certainly if they want to attend the neighborhood school, and 80 to 90 percent of the time overall.

As a result, the program has proved popular among students and parents. Roughly 5,000 of 14,000 students in the consortium attend a school outside their community. "If you can pick the school you go to, there's a certain amount of ownership," said Carole Goodman, principal of Blake.

The report concludes that consortium schools have progressed academically at about the same rate as the rest of the county. Downcounty schools may have fared better; the report states that those schools have made academic progress on seven of 10 key academic measures, often at a greater rate than the county as whole. The schools have had particular success on SAT and Advanced Placement exams.

If there's a downside to the consortiums, it may be that they have not erased the pecking order among schools. Blair, with its vaunted magnet programs in math-science and communications, remains a favorite destination for many students. Blake is particularly desirable in Northeast with its performing arts focus. Many students who do not get their choice of schools are rejected from one or the other.

The report is one of several that have analyzed whether various Montgomery school initiatives have achieved their goals, and whether the results justify the expense in a tough budget year. The authors note that roughly $3 million a year is spent on school choice and ask, "Has the investment in the two high school consortiums been worth it?"

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