Montgomery County schools are working hard to make sure all students receive an equal education, but much still needs to be done to fulfill the promise of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
That was the consensus Monday night as about 450 people, including educators and community and political leaders, gathered at the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre in Silver Spring to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1954 court decision to desegregate public schools.
"We didn't have to be here tonight. We're here tonight because it's the right thing to do," schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast told the audience. "We live in the right community because if it's going to happen, this issue of Brown becoming a reality, it will happen in Montgomery County."
The two-hour commemoration was titled "The Countdown to Brown," the first phase of the school system's two-part observance of the anniversary.
"Brown and Beyond," the second part of the observance that began Tuesday, will focus on the steps that the district and community need to take to reach the goal of equal access in education.
Since Brown was decided, the county school district has grown from a population of about 41,000 students that was 96 percent white to one of about 140,000 students that is now a "majority-minority school district" representing about 150 cultures, school and county officials.
Noting that learning disparities still exist in county schools, county officials acknowledged more must be done to equalize opportunities for all students and increase participation by African-American and Hispanic students in such educational offerings as magnet programs.
"Closing the minority achievement gap in our schools is definitely the civil rights issue for the 21st century. It is our Brown," said County Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). "We will be judged on our efforts to close that gap, just as the public officials who came before us will be judged on their efforts to desegregate schools."
A discussion including producer and director George Stevens Jr. and clips from his 1991 television miniseries "Separate But Equal" set the tone for an evening that explored the decades leading up to Brown and examined the state of county education today through the eyes of local leaders and educators.
County and school officials and leaders of local minority organizations focused on issues such as poverty, language barriers and lower expectations for minority students as the post-Brown stumbling blocks on the road to equality.
Henry Hailstock, president of the Montgomery County NAACP, noted that although recent steps such as the implementation of all-day kindergarten at some county schools have helped raise achievement levels, higher expectations for all students are needed.
"Somehow, we're losing what was gained earlier, from third grade on somehow we're losing that edge," he said.
Odessa Shannon, director of the county Human Rights Commission, pointed out that poor school performance coincides with discriminatory housing patterns. At schools in low-income neighborhoods, teachers are not as well prepared and the resources are not the same as in more affluent areas, she said.
Parents juggling several jobs to make ends meet also find it more difficult to stay involved in their child's school life, she said.
"If parents have to make a choice between helping with homework or catching a few hours' sleep, then the child is going to suffer," Shannon said.
Representatives of the growing Latino and Asian communities said they face their own issues of diversity within their communities as well as dealing with language and cultural barriers.
"The most important thing to remember is we are coming here for a better education," said Nancy Navarro, a co-director of Centro Familia. "The myth that parents don't care and don't value education isn't true."
County and school officials recognize that segregation created by economic status leads to lower expectations and poorer performance, said Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), the County Council's education chairman. That's why officials have changed their focus from providing equal funding for each student to new strategies that provide programs such as all-day kindergarten to help counter problems caused by economic inequities.
"We don't have to spend dollar for dollar per child," he said. Instead, the district can offer "very targeted, economics-based solutions for the schools."
The evening's lessons were reinforced by eighth-graders from Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring, who performed monologues in the characters of such African American historical figures as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.
With a slideshow of black-and-white photos as a backdrop, the students took the audience on a historical journey that ended with Linda Brown, whose father sued the Topeka, Kan., Board of Education, wondering about her educational future.
"We will look back to remember, and we will look forward to never forget what our mission is," said Irene Neequaye, the student narrator.