Many Asian American parents worry that potential admissions changes to Montgomery County’s selective academic programs could limit access for their children, while a number of black and Hispanic families have welcomed the county’s efforts to examine racial and ethnic disparities in the school system’s gifted and magnet programs.
A recent report on school choice in the suburban Maryland school district recommended changes to increase diversity in the county’s highly gifted centers and magnet programs. It found stark disparities in enrollment and acceptance rates, with white and Asian students faring better than their black and Hispanic classmates.
The most controversial of the report’s recommendations would modify the admissions process to focus on “selecting equitably” from applicants who show a capacity to thrive. It suggests a few possible ideas, including admitting the top-performing children from each “sending” school and broadening the definition of “gifted.”
Julie Yang, a parent of two, said many Asian American parents are worried that the recommendation, which mentions “group-specific norms,” could lead to Asian American children being denied admission on the basis of race.
“We don’t know what this means,” Yang said. “If this report is implemented, does that mean Asian Americans can only take up 15 percent of the seats in the gifted centers?”
Asian students account for 14.2 percent of the 156,000-student district’s enrollment, but represent a larger share of students in many selective programs. In the district’s elementary school highly gifted centers, enrollment was 47 percent white, 34 percent Asian, 8 percent African American and 4 percent Hispanic in the 2013-2014 school year, the report said.
Yang said gifted programs respond to students’ special needs and said she finds the report divisive because it separates children by race. “Our communities should work together to better the education for everyone,” she said. “We are one community of learners.”
Others in the suburban Maryland school district also have reacted strongly to the report, with several black leaders saying change is long overdue. On Thursday, Fausto Zurita, an 11th grader in an elite magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School, described his personal experience to the school board and urged action.
“As the only Hispanic magnet student in my grade level and a student from a low-income family, I believe that the recommendations proposed by the report have the potential to be incredibly beneficial to students like me,” he said.
Zurita said that he started school as an English language learner and was rejected when he applied for placement to selective programs in his younger years. Noting the few students of color in his program at Blair, he said it showed “a dire need for more diversity.”
There has been a wave of response to the board-commissioned report, with more than 800 people attending three district-hosted meetings in April and May. Parents have emailed the school board and online discussion groups have buzzed.
The school board plans to start considering some of the recommendations in the 206-page report, done by a research firm and addressing a wide range of issues involving school choice in coming months. Several school board members have said they would like to see such programs expanded.
Tension surrounding the issue flared at the most recent community meeting, when a man read an “I Have a Dream” poem that used Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech as a framework for his commentary on efforts to create more racial balance.
“I had a dream that the NBA would make it easier for Asian players to get in because they wanted to close the achievement gap between Asian players and African American players,” he said.
Several leaders in the black community called the poem — and the applause that followed it — offensive. Byron Johns, chair of the education committee of the Montgomery County chapter of the NAACP, said he eventually walked out of the May meeting because of its tone, language and spirit.
“The implied message was that your kids don’t have the intellect or the motivation to be in these programs, and very much that their kids were more deserving,” Johns said. Of the poem, he said: “It was no way in the spirit of what Martin Luther King spoke to, thought or intended. To hijack it to serve some special interest is wrong.”
Johns said he found the report thorough and insightful, pointing out that the recommendation to consider changes in the admissions process was grounded in experiences of other school systems nationally. “These are sound practices that have proven to be more equitable,” he said.
Laura Dennis, whose daughter is in a highly gifted center in Chevy Chase Elementary, said the girl is one of the few African American students in her program. Dennis said that she has volunteered at several schools and has met students of color who seemed suited for such programs but were not involved. She said it can be hard for some families to know such programs exist.
“I think the results of the study are right on target,” Dennis said. The school system “really does need to take a more proactive role in identifying high-potential children of color.”
Michelle Gluck, president-elect of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County, said the recommendations overlook what she thinks is the real problem: There are no gifted programs in most neighborhood schools, which intensifies demand for highly gifted magnet programs, and there are not enough efforts to nurture gifted students who are disadvantaged before they apply to magnet programs.
She said she has heard from hundreds of parents since the report came out.
“It has been very intense and very emotional,” she said. “I think the parents who are reacting strongly to this feel their kids are being seen as members of racial groups instead of individuals with needs.”
Henry Fan, an Asian American father of a child who attends a highly gifted center in Potomac, said he supports helping underrepresented students but opposes the recommendation to modify admission criteria. Highly gifted programs are designed to serve students with special learning needs, he said.
“This should be a merit-based program, and it should be a colorblind and universal standard,” he said.