The writers are longtime residents of Montgomery County. Combined they have five children in public schools.
Montgomery County seems like a fairyland of affluence on the outskirts of the nation’s capital with progressive politics and world-class public schools. But pull back the curtain and the Oz-like illusion disappears. In its place, you find a suburb confronting rapidly increasing poverty with excellent public schools for some students amid the complexities of a “majority-minority” region.
As Montgomery County Public Schools navigates its way through profound change, it needs stability and perseverance. That’s why the abrupt departure of Superintendent Joshua P. Starr is a major blow and a loss for the district’s 154,000 students and for parents and teachers.
Bubbling beneath the surface are issues that rarely receive top billing in school-district politics.
Montgomery County is a school district evolving into two districts within one. It’s a district where “white flight” and increasing school segregation by income, race and ethnicity impede progress in closing the achievement gap. It’s a district with a vision of delivering the greatest public education to every student as affluent schools reap inequitable benefits at the expense of less wealthy schools. And it’s a district in which the students look less and less like the county’s teachers.
Starr brought a refreshing and welcome clarity to leading a school district in which half the students are Hispanic/Latino or black. His operating budget assigned resources, programs and staffing to less-affluent schools, allowing for smaller class sizes and additional academic support. In discussions about school construction and boundaries, he peeled back veiled references to privilege, seeking instead schools that reflect the diverse communities that make up Montgomery.
In a “listening tour” of all 202 schools in the county, Starr spoke and listened to the concerns of many parents and teachers who had never had a superintendent visit their school. And when a parent tweeted him about the lack of diversity on her son’s summer reading list, he tweeted back, turning what could have been an isolated case into an opportunity for reflection on culturally relevant literature and materials.
Ironically, as the board faulted Starr for lacking a “coherent strategy to address the academic achievement gap,” new data were released, showing an increase in the high school graduation rate for black and Hispanic students. But if Starr failed to close the achievement gap, then we as a community, including the board, failed, too. We are not investing enough in quality preschool, nor are we providing the social services to protect, support and strengthen the lives of children and families in Montgomery County.
We live in a county where many deride free-breakfast programs but brag about million-dollar sports fields. We complain that our children are losing sleep but ignore children without a bed in which to sleep. We offer $100 yearbooks while some are struggling to read. We are a county with a wide divide — and a color line — between children who “have” and those who “have not.”
To make progress, we need a superintendent and a board of education brave and bold enough to make racial and class equity pivotal in policies. We need leaders who are willing to say no to those who are used to getting their way, and yes to those who are rarely heard.
There is no room for petty squabbles or personality disputes. We had a superintendent who was committed and willing to listen to his community. As the board of education launches a search for Starr’s successor, an equitable and high-quality education for all students must be at the forefront.