The issue of improving the academic performance of minority students is expected to dominate debates about educational policy this coming school year in Montgomery County.
Concerned that too much time during the past decade may have been focused on improving integration in the classroom and not enough on educating minority students, school board members earlier this year initiated a massive search for ways to narrow the academic gap between black and Hispanic students and white and Asian students.
The effort, which will include a national search for successful programs and which may include an in-house evaluation of every Montgomery classroom, signals a major victory for the minority community. Members of that community have long complained that the school system, although progressive on race relations, has not been responsive enough to their educational concerns.
The school board's lead in this area, spearheaded by board president Blair Ewing, reflects the type of discussions taking place across the country now that desegregation--court-ordered and self-imposed--has become a fact in most jurisdictions.
In particular, educators now are trying to find out why federally funded academic programs begun in 1965 with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have not produced the expected improvement in test results of minority and disadvantaged students.
In Montgomery, the problem took on new prominence in the spring when school officials announced that two of three black students and more than one of two Hispanic students failed a state math skills test administered last fall. Passing the test will be a requirement for high school graduation for all Maryland students beginning in 1987.
Seventy percent of the county's white students and 77 percent of the Asian students passed the math competency exam. Blacks make up 13.3 percent of the county's 92,517 students; Hispanics 4.6 percent and Asians 7.3 percent.
"We want to do something that may show others around the country that the gap can be erased," said Lois Martin, associate superintendent for instruction. "This is a very significant national priority, and it is a very significant priority here."
In the coming year, school staff members are expected to analyze why there is a disproportionately large number of blacks and Hispanics enrolled in low-level courses and why they are under-represented in gifted and talented courses. The staff also will consider the effect of family background and poverty on academic performance and teacher expectation for minority students.
The search for successful programs comes at a time when the school board, in an effort to improve integration in the classroom, is beginning to consider a profound change in its policy on racial integration. The board currently is required to take steps, including busing, to improve the racial balance at a school when minority representation exceeds 64.1 percent, but a school committee earlier this month recommended lowering that threshold to 45.4 percent.
The higher figure, decided upon by a previous board two years ago, has been criticized by a number of new board members and community leaders as contributing to creating "educational Berlin Walls" around schools with high minority populations.
Minorities currently represent 25.4 percent of all county students, but most of the concentration is in schools in the lower county. With a minority population growth of roughly 20 percent a year, school officials expect minorities to make up more than half the enrollment in southern Montgomery in five years.
In considering the lower threshold, however, school board members have said the new figure will not lead automatically to additional busing. The policy change, some school board members have said, may not result in a boundary change but rather in increased staff and funding when a school is considered racially imbalanced. In other programs, Montgomery school officials will continue to expand computer offerings, increase reading and writing requirements and open the county's first vocational high school.
Students at all grade levels will be able to take more computer classes this fall. At the high school level, for the first time, students in 10 of the county's 22 high schools will be able to use new computer labs and enroll in three one-semester elective courses: introduction to computers, programming for problem solving and computer applications. School officials also are designing three more advanced high school computer science courses, which they expect to try out in a year.
At the junior high and elementary school level, computer courses will be available for the first time in all schools. The classes were tested last year in 36 elementary and 18 junior high schools. Junior high students will be able to enroll in a basic programming course, while first to sixth graders will be able to take a computer literacy class if their teachers offer it.
In English instruction, high school students will be required this year to take a one-semester writing and language workshop designed to improve writing ability, while elementary students in a number of schools will be participating in a pilot writing and speaking course.
About 600 students are expected to enroll part time in 16 vocational programs when the Edison Career Center opens in Silver Spring this fall. Among the courses offered will be auto body and mechanics, carpentry, cosmetology, data processing, word processing, masonry and child care. Students will attend their home high schools for part of the day and participate in the vocational programs for the remainder of the day.