Asha Richards was excited when she was admitted to a sought-after high school communication arts program, but she said it has been discouraging to see how few other black students have been in her classes during the past three years.
“I didn’t feel I could connect with my peers,” she said. “It was kind of a struggle for me. I would often be quiet in class. I didn’t voice my opinion.”
Richards’s observations appear to be in line with the findings of a report on school choices that examined Montgomery County’s selective academic programs and found marked disparities by race and ethnicity in enrollment and acceptance rates, with white students faring much better than their black and Hispanic counterparts.
At the high school level, for instance, the report found an acceptance rate of 45 percent for white students applying to selective programs studied, compared with 39 percent for Asians, 23 percent for Hispanics, 19 percent for African Americans and 11 percent for low-income students.
Among younger children, enrollment in the district’s elementary centers for the highly gifted was 47 percent white, 34 percent Asian, 8 percent African American, 8 percent low-income and 4 percent Latino in the 2013-2014 school year, according to a research firm’s report to the county Board of Education.
Community leaders called the data deeply troubling, saying it reflects diminished opportunities for minority students at a time when the fast-growing school system is increasingly diverse.
“It is outrageous,” said Diego Uriburu, co-chair of the Montgomery County Latino Advocacy Coalition. “There are great inequities in terms of access. The majority of our families don’t even know these programs exist.”
Byron Johns, chair of the education committee of the Montgomery County chapter of the NAACP, said the report signals a need for change. He said school officials should move with “all deliberate speed,” recognizing that “for generations, there has a systemic lack of equitable access.”
Montgomery school officials said the report reflects problems that school systems across the country grapple with — a point also made by the report’s authors, who noted that limited diversity is a “challenge observed in gifted and talented programs nationally.”
The district has planned meetings in April and May to begin a community dialogue
“It is certainly something that we felt we should be looking at,” said Michael Durso, the school board president.
A 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision barred school systems from using race as a determining factor in school enrollment decisions, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. That includes magnets and other special programs, even if their goal is to attract or maintain a diverse student population, he said.
The goal of diversity is not impossible, Henig said, but many school systems aren’t sure what they are allowed to do and instead play it safe by using criteria such as test scores, grades and courses.
“They use those metrics because they appear to be objective indicators,” Henig said. “But for various historical reasons, those same metrics may favor white and more-affluent kids.”
According to detailed district data provided to The Washington Post, several of the county’s best-known middle- and high-school magnet programs have relatively few black and Hispanic students. In one case, the student body has less than 5 percent of each group.
Districtwide, black and Hispanic students account for slightly more than 50 percent of the student population in Montgomery County’s public schools.
The report recommends rethinking how school leaders inform hard-to-reach families of school program choices. It also raises the possibility of broadening the definition of “gifted” to include student qualities such as persistence and motivation — or of automatically admitting top students at each “sending” school.
“We need to do a better job of communicating options to families,” said board of education member Patricia O’Neill. But school officials also should look closely at the criteria for admission to academically selective programs, she said.
“I do believe we seriously need to step up to the plate and tackle this issue,” O’Neill said. “We’re not doing a very good job of bringing in African American and Latino students.”
School board member Jill Ortman-Fouse (At Large) said she believes the problem stretches back to the early grades at county schools.
“The pipeline is not working,” she said. “We’re not capturing enough of our children of color into the more accelerated opportunities in our schools.”
The report showed that language immersion programs, although lottery-based, had markedly more white students than students from other groups. The report recommended considering the elimination of automatic admissions for siblings in the elementary-language immersion program as one way to improve equal access to the program.
Demand in Montgomery is high for a range of school choices 40 years after county magnet programs were developed amid efforts to help foster integration.
About half of the students seeking elementary slots in language immersion programs are placed on a wait list, the report said. Just 18 percent of applicants to centers for highly gifted students at eight elementary schools are accepted for enrollment.
About 2,900 students applied for the 830 seats available in selective application-based and magnet high school and middle school programs in 2013-2014.
Patrick Dunn, president of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County, said that the report’s history section was informative but that the study failed to acknowledge a goal for meeting the needs of gifted children, instead focusing on the programs’ role in integrating schools.
“For the parents and for the students who go there, that’s not their role,” he said. “Their role is to educate the GT students.”
Michelle Gluck, vice president for educational issues for Montgomery’s countywide council of PTAs, said she found the racial and ethnic disparities in enrollment troubling, but not because the students who are getting in don’t belong there.
“I see a huge unmet need,” she said, noting that one part of the answer to easing inequities is better preparation for such programs. “I am confident there are highly able students from all groups. In order to thrive in the gifted programs, they need to be identified and nurtured before they reach the application year.”
District data shows that in Montgomery Blair High School’s elite math, science and computer science program, enrollment is 57 percent Asian and 28 percent white. African American and Hispanic enrollment are each less than 5 percent.
The program has produced more Intel Science Talent Search finalists since 1999 than any school in the United States. Nearly 600 students have applied for 100 seats next year.
“We would love for our program to match what our county looks like,” said Peter Ostrander, the program’s coordinator. “But the problem is much bigger than one single program. It’s about preparing students before they get to a program like ours.”
At Montgomery Blair, African American students — including Richards — have organized around a lack of diversity in the school’s selective Communication Arts Program (CAP). According to district data, enrollment is 67 percent white, 11 percent Asian, 8 percent black and less than five percent Hispanic.
Students said recent class discussions that showed insensitivity toward racial issues led them to create a group two weeks ago called “African American Students of CAP,” or “Black CAP,” as it is known on social media.
The lack of diversity in the program is the group’s first concern, several said. They also want to make the experience more comfortable for minority students.
“Our goal is to bring awareness to racial issues, in the program and outside of the program,” said Darien Price, a sophomore.
Aidan Keys, who graduated from the program last year and attends Howard University, said that although Blair is a highly diverse school, advanced classes were mostly white. “Not seeing people like me in all of these ‘smart classes’ was really isolating and didn’t make me feel good about being black,” she said.
CAP students said they hoped to visit middle schools to spark interest in the program among African American students.
“We’re trying to improve the program for future years,” said Alix Swann, a sophomore. “We don’t want anyone to feel the way we’ve been feeling. We want the program to be more diverse.”
Richards said the activism has been encouraging, along with an African American history class she is taking. Last week, representatives of the newly organized student group met with CAP teachers.
Principal Renay Johnson tweeted a photo that day and posted: “African American CAP students share their program experiences with teachers. Honest & courageous conversations!”
Richards said she knows change won’t happen overnight.
“I feel like we’re going in the right direction,” she said. “It’s too early to tell whether things will change, but I have high hopes.”