I am haunted by the question "Why wasn't Michael Barrios in school?"
Michael's family says he was 15 when he died after becoming entangled in the grinding machinery of a mulch-spreading truck while working on a landscaping job.
It happened May 18, a Tuesday. He should have been in school. The law says so and so does common sense.
The reason Michael wasn't in school is the subject of a school system investigation, the findings of which should be made public as soon as possible. There are other Michael Barrioses in Montgomery County. All you need to do is look at street corners, shopping malls and at the work crews of landscaping companies to see teenagers who should be in school.
Jennifer Pensler, who testified before the school board last week as a friend of Michael's mother, says his mother -- who has since returned to Guatemala -- tried many times to prove she was a county resident who was entitled to enroll her children in school. But she was rebuffed by a school system bureaucracy that required paperwork she could not provide.
Michael's case is one that should raise questions about the way the school system requires families to prove residence before enrolling their children. The school system does not want children who should be enrolled in other school systems -- children whose families really live in the District or in other counties -- to go to school here. But in trying to keep those children out, the county may be keeping out other children who live here but cannot provide the traditional proof of residency.
Montgomery County is an epicenter of one of the biggest waves of immigration this nation has experienced, and we need to be mindful that new immigrants often have unsettled living arrangements. They share housing with friends and family and move often. If they are here illegally, they are often reluctant to expose themselves to public officials.
Despite all of that, the U.S. Supreme Court says their children have a right to be in school. This is why Montgomery residents should be alarmed by the approximately 2,000 eighth-graders who have not yet proved their residency and cannot register for high school. This is almost one-fifth of all the incoming ninth-graders, and they tend to be clustered in the schools with the highest number of children from other countries.
If we don't make a serious effort to ensure that all children who should be in school are in school, we will see more children in dangerous jobs and hanging around street corners who are not being prepared for adulthood in this or any other country.
Beating Demographic Odds
Because this is the last Homeroom column for the school year, I want to end on a happy note. So let me tell you about Viers Mill Elementary School.
Two years ago, I scoured testing data in hopes of finding a Montgomery County school that was succeeding with kids who traditionally are thought to be difficult to teach: low-income students with high mobility and students whose primary language is not English. Time and again I came up with unassuming Viers Mill Elementary, smack in the middle of Viers Mill Village, a neighborhood in Wheaton.
Housed in a not particularly attractive school building, Viers Mill also has a good chunk of its playground covered by a mini-city of portable classrooms (two years ago there were 12; this year the number is 13). A little more than 60 percent of Viers Mill students receive free or reduced-priced meals, and nearly 30 percent have limited English and are learning to speak the language. It is an ethnically diverse school, with about half of the students counted as Hispanic and 23 percent African American.
In Montgomery County, those kinds of numbers traditionally translate into low test scores. But two years ago, Viers Mill was showing real progress -- it was achieving at levels usually more associated with schools with affluent students.
When I asked the principal, James Virga Jr., what he was doing to achieve such success, he listed so many things that it is hard to even give a sense of them. The kids begin their day by eating breakfast in their classrooms, which offers a somewhat intimate social beginning to their day. At lunchtime, volunteers eat, read, talk and play games with kids identified by teachers as needing a little more adult guidance than they can provide. The school works with Linkages to Learning, which makes sure families know about their eligibility for social services. The school has a day-care center that is open to the community and also serves the children of some of the teachers. This means teachers who might otherwise opt to teach closer to home stay at Viers Mill and don't have to worry about child care.
But most of all, the principal and teachers are tightly focused on student achievement data. They constantly watch where their students are in reading and math and look at student work.
"Looking at student work" is an expression that refers to a careful, systematic examination of writing and other work so that teachers can get a sense of what students in other classes are doing, which in turn gives a sense of what other teachers are doing. At Viers Mill, teachers are on teams, with members from varied grade levels, so everyone can see what first-graders, second-graders and on up are doing.
Teachers also meet regularly on grade-level teams so that, for example, all the second-grade teachers plan together. Virga spends a great deal of time making sure the school schedule accommodates all the team meetings, English-language classes, special education services, and so forth, so that instruction is coherent and understandable for children rather than a whirlwind of different forces and special programs pulling them in different directions.
I was impressed two years ago that Viers Mill was on the right track, but I put off writing about it because I didn't think its test scores were quite there yet. They didn't yet provide the Aha! moment I was looking for that would convince others that poor kids can learn as much as rich kids.
But a couple of weeks ago, Viers Mill posted math computation scores in which 96.1 percent of its second-graders performed at or above the national median on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. Except for Stone Mill Elementary School, where only 5 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, no other school in the county beat Viers Mill in computation -- and not many other schools in the nation did. In overall math, 80 percent of the second-graders scored at or above the national median. Reading lags a bit, with 62.1 percent of the second-graders at or above the national median, but that represents an almost 20 point increase from 2000. Virga says a lag should be expected when so many kids are still learning to speak English.
His point is supported by the fact that last year's Maryland School Assessment reading scores improved significantly between third and fifth grades. In the third grade, 52 percent of the students met the state standard; in fifth grade, 65 percent met it.
Virga and the teaching staff are hoping that this year's MSA scores, which weren't out in time for this column, will show a substantial jump.
Viers Mill is an example of a school where the grown-ups pay careful attention to assessments and make sure they are teaching what the tests are testing. But they haven't lost sight of the fact that they are teaching children.
The teachers I spoke with are fiercely loyal to Virga, who they say treats them like human beings and professionals. If they need time to attend to personal crises, he makes sure they have it. He would never yell at teachers because test scores go down, they say. He treats data as information they all need to understand so they can improve.
Viers Mills is proving that good schools can beat the demographic odds. A few years ago, people were despairing that that was possible. Now the question is how we can make sure all schools are as effective as Viers Mill.
Homeroom is a forum for you that appears every week during the school year in Montgomery Extra. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To see previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/education/columns/homeroom.