Montgomery County can genuinely celebrate what is happening in its elementary schools. Second-graders in schools with the poorest populations are scoring at levels where second-graders in wealthy schools were a few years ago. And at many of the wealthy schools, second-graders are doing substantially better than their older brothers and sisters did a few years ago.
Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring may have come the furthest. It hit rock bottom in 2001, when only 21.7 percent of its second-graders scored above the national median in mathematics on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), and just 22 percent scored above the national median in reading.
The general reaction throughout the school system to such poor performance had been, up till then, a kind of "what-can-you-do?" shrug. Most of the kids at Broad Acres are poor, most are black or Hispanic, and many are the children of recent immigrants. The general sense was, "How can a school even begin to tackle all the problems these kids have?"
But Superintendent Jerry D. Weast was beginning to gain his footing, having arrived on the job in the fall of 1999. He directed substantial resources to the school, including a new principal. Together with the teachers union, they asked for and got a new level of commitment from the faculty. Weast provided focused training and demanded that all the grown-ups at the school pay close attention to academic achievement.
Today the picture is totally different. This year, 72.9 percent of the second-graders at Broad Acres scored above the national median in math and 57.1 percent above the national median in reading. At the same time, the demographics of the school haven't changed substantially. Most of the students are still from poor families -- 88 percent qualify for the federal free and reduced-price meal subsidy -- and most are black and Hispanic. Many of their parents are recent immigrants who speak languages other than English at home.
The success of Broad Acres is worth celebrating all by itself. But if just one school made the changes and the gains, it could be dismissed as simply the work of one principal and a few teachers. Around the country, many schools have made improvements and helped their kids achieve, and too often they have been dismissed as one-principal wonders.
What is impressive here in Montgomery County is that the improvements appear to be systemwide.
Eighty-seven of the county's 119 elementary schools with second grades posted increases in the number of students who scored above the national median on the CTBS reading test this year. In 32 schools, the percentage of kids who scored above the median in reading jumped by more than 15 points in the past five years.
And the reading results are not nearly as impressive as the math results, where 42 schools improved the percentage of students scoring above the national median by 15 or more percentage points over the past five years.
Some showed remarkable gains. Glen Haven Elementary in Bethesda, for example, saw 25.7 percent of its second-graders perform above the median in 2000; this year the figure was 84.2 percent. Summit Hall in Gaithersburg went from 28.4 percent to 67.1 percent in the same period; New Hampshire Estates in Silver Spring went from 29.5 percent to 69.8 percent.
These are all schools where most the students qualify for the federal meal subsidy.
Wealthy schools did not need to make as much progress, but many of them improved as well. Bethesda Elementary, where fewer than 10 percent of the students qualify for subsidized meals, went from 66.7 percent of second-graders scoring above the national median in reading to 91.8 percent. Cold Spring in Potomac, where only 2.7 percent of the students qualify for meal subsidies, went from 87.2 percent scoring above the median in math to 100 percent.
This is all evidence that what is happening is systemic improvement. It is proof that poor kids can achieve as well as rich kids if they receive focused instruction by well-trained and knowledgeable teachers and that efforts made for poor kids can help all kids -- rich and poor.
"This is real progress," says Craig Jerald, a senior analyst for the Education Trust, a national organization that works to improve academic achievement for all students, but especially for poor kids and kids of color. "Black second-graders are doing math computation at levels where white second-graders were a few years ago -- that's pretty big movement." A few years ago, he said, "people would have said that was impossible."
Here I feel the need to issue my usual qualification: The CTBS is not a test to live or die by. It measures reading and math at fairly rudimentary levels. And we need to verify that these test results are confirmed by other measures, such as the Maryland School Assessments, which are given to third-, fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders. We'll have those results this month.
But neither of those caveats takes away from the fact that at schools where, just a few years ago, the vast majority of kids were nowhere near being able to read and do math at rudimentary levels, they are knocking the socks off the CTBS.
Everyone connected with those successes should be holding a party this spring.
Inequality Goes Beyond Magnets
I was perplexed to see in the column commemorating Brown v. Board of Education ["50 Years After Desegregation Ruling, Equality Still Elusive," May 20] that you chose to focus on programs for gifted children to make a point about Montgomery County's unfinished business when it comes to racial integration.
I think you should have focused attention on the bigger picture -- the wide disparities in racial integration among whole schools in the "red" and "green" zones, as Montgomery County public school officials call them. There are elementary, middle and high schools in the affluent "green" zone of the county that are 80 and 90 percent white, while many of the downcounty "red" zone schools' minority populations are in the 70 and 80 percent range.
To place blame for racial segregation in schools in the county on the few magnet programs is shameful. You did your loyal readers (that includes me) a disservice by focusing on these programs and ignoring the larger inequities that are pervasive in MCPS.
I was using the magnet programs as examples of racial isolation in the county, but you are right that the overall picture of the county is that some schools are racially integrated and some very racially isolated, and almost no one in the county is talking about trying to change that.
Don't Forget Immersion Schools
I read your column about the fact that the enrollment of minority children in Montgomery County magnet programs is low. The thing that was missing from this survey are the "language immersion" programs.
I did leave out language immersion programs because they have different admissions criteria. But the elementary foreign language immersion programs are among the most ethnically integrated of all programs in the county, demonstrating the widespread appeal across ethnic groups that foreign language instruction has.
Of the 988 students in either French or Spanish immersion programs at four schools in Silver Spring, 625 are white, 7 American Indian, 131 Hispanic, 162 African American and 63 Asian American.
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