MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr on Monday touted project-based learning programs, Common Core standards and “hope” as measures of the school system’s innovative strategies for dealing with growing enrollment and a growing achievement gap.
Starr spoke in front of about 750 teachers, administrators, staff members, students, parents and elected officials in his 2013 “State of the Schools” address at the Music Center at Strathmore.
Starr has spoken often in the last year about the concept of hope as a way to measure engaged students who will likely perform better in school and who will be more well-rounded once they leave MCPS.
“For students, there’s a direct connection between their success in school and their level of hope, engagement and well-being,” Starr said. “That’s why we’re using survey data and making it part of our Strategic Planning Framework. Hope matters. Hope travels from person to person.”
MCPS had a Gallup poll of students conducted last fall that found 54 percent of students felt “hopeful,” 32 percent felt “stuck,” and 14 percent felt “discouraged.”
In concrete terms, Starr said the way to encourage more hopefulness in students is through more hands-on learning and by giving teachers more space to be creative with students. He showed a video of Springbrook High School students tasked with applying physics lessons to building a cardboard boat. Those students brought their boats to a local pool. Two students got in each boat, with the goal of getting to the other side of the pool first.
“Hope is the engine of innovation,” Starr said. “We are working hard and we are collaborating in the face of new opportunities and longstanding challenges because if we embrace the new, if we innovate, our children will thrive in the future.”
The school system has 151,289 students, making it the 17th largest in the country with a projected 2,500 additional students expected to enroll in the next few years. That has caused overcrowding issues in virtually ever district, but Starr didn’t take up the county’s recently announced push for more state school construction funding in his address on Monday.
Instead, he focused much of his remarks on the achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students, one that has grown in the county in the past few years.
Despite SAT scores, AP test results and graduation rates that outpace the state and national averages, black and Hispanic SAT test scores are on average more than 300 points lower than white students in MCPS.
Black students make up 21 percent of student enrollment, but account for 54 percent of all non-mandatory suspensions.
“We must accept that the strategies we have used up to this point — while effective — will not get us to the top of the mountain,” said Starr, who then detailed a project-based learning program and a long list of county agency partners, businesses and nonprofits that are taking part in programming at Wheaton High School.
“We have not run from change. We’ve welcomed it and leveraged our current structures to provide our students with education, the support and services they and their families need,” Starr said. “We embrace the new and that for me is the definition of innovation.”