MCPS Officials Not Happy With Media’s Focus On School Boundary Discussion

BOE President Phil Kauffman, via Phil Kauffman

Two top Montgomery County school officials on Tuesday emphasized there are no plans to change school boundaries in an attempt to solve the school system’s achievement gap.

Board of Education President Phil Kauffman said it was “unfortunate” that the media focus of Monday’s Council Committee hearing on the topic was squarely on the question of school boundaries and school choice. Three members of Council — Craig Rice, Nancy Navarro and Cherri Branson — asked school officials if redrawing boundaries could help solve the widening gap in academic performance between low-income and high-income county high schools.

The idea of more school choice, a concept which involves allowing low-income students to attend traditionally better performing high-income schools, was included in the Council’s discussion topics of a report that outlined the disparities.

But at the beginning of Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, Kauffman and MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr said the media missed out on covering programs in the school system already in place to improve schools in lower income areas.

“I think the unfortunate part is what the takeaway from the media was. And we already see the headline in the Washington Post on the issue of what came out is like, ‘Should we be doing boundary changes to address the achievement gap?’ And that was the headline and rather than discussing everything that is happening, the takeaway is really what’s not happening,” Kauffman said. ”There were maybe three councilmembers who said we should be looking at boundary changes.”

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr (file photo)Starr tweeted how frustrated he was that after more than three hours of discussion, the media’s focus was on the school boundary issue.

“Three-and-a-half hours of a pretty rich conversation of our efforts got boiled down to a non-existent boundary plan,” Starr said Tuesday. “That’s just the way it goes because it is how people think of these things.”

MCPS also issued a press release later Tuesday to correct what it labeled as inaccuracies in some media reports on Monday’s meeting.

“Dr. Starr and Mr. Kauffman felt that it was important to clarify what was discussed yesterday at the Council meeting. There were references in several stories that MCPS would be considering boundary changes as part of its efforts to narrow the achievement gap,” wrote MCPS spokesperson Gboyinde Onijala. “This was inaccurate given that Dr. Starr, Dr. Statham, and members of the Board spent the majority of the time highlighting  various programs and initiatives that we have in place now, as well as  several strategies moving forward.”

The school system made a lengthy presentation before Council questions outlining its existing strategy for solving the achievement gap, a problem school and County Council officials acknowledged is not Montgomery County’s alone.

MCPS officials described the five “core strategies” it’s using and how programs funded in the recently passed school budget prove it:

Equitable Funding and Support: MCPS will continue to devote more resources to schools with the highest needs.

Academic Rigor and Cultural Proficiency:  MCPS will ensure the curriculum provides students with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in the 21st century around all three competencies–Academic Excellence, Creative Problem Solving, and Social Emotional Learning. In addition, MCPS is investing in increasing the cultural competency of its staff at all levels.

Human Capital Management:  MCPS will work to ensure that it hires a diverse and highly qualified workforce. In addition, MCPS will continue to invest in robust professional development and support for all staff to make sure they can meet the needs of our students.

Community Engagement: MCPS will work within the MCPS community and with partner agencies and organizations to support the needs of students and their families in and out of school.

Accountability and Continuous Improvement: MCPS is committed to a culture of accountability and continuous improvement. Meaningful data drives and improves instruction and creates accountability for producing results.

In this year’s school budget is a program to incentivize the system’s best teachers to work in the worst performing schools.

Part of the MCPS presentation included Northwood High School Principal Mildred Charley-Greene, who detailed how Northwood staff significantly cut down on the number of discretionary suspensions handed out in order to keep more students in school.

The entire Council Education Committee session is available to view here. Some of it was dedicated to a presentation and Council questions of the Office of Legislative Oversight staffer who prepared the achievement gap report.

As they did Monday, Kauffman and Starr again put part of the onus for more equitable socioeconomic school balance on the County Council.

Kauffman again pointed to the 2010 White Flint Sector Plan, approved by the County Council, as an example, saying he didn’t think the county ensured enough affordable housing in the master plan.

The MCPS press release pressed that point again:

Dr. Starr and Mr. Kauffman both highlighted with the council on Monday that the county’s housing and transportation policy also has a significant impact on the economic and racial integration of the county’s schools. For example, the White Flint sector plan includes 9,800 new housing units over the next few decades but only includes 980 new units of workforce housing.  This area feeds the Walter Johnson cluster of schools.

“We believe that housing, transportation and education policy should all work together to ensure that we have vibrant, thriving integrated schools and communities,” said Dr. Starr. “All three areas have to work together to achieve our vision for an integrated community that reflects the rich diversity of the county.”

Starr did say MCPS has money budgeted this year for a study of school choice programs in the county. It’s not yet clear when that process would start.

Photo via Phillip Kauffman

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