My Two Cents: Redistricting Could Help Schools Fix Capacity Issues

My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BethesdaNow.com.

Before moving on, I wanted to revisit the issue of changing school boundaries. By ruling out boundary changes and sticking to the limits of current high school clusters, the Montgomery County Board of Education misses opportunities to save money. That’s important.

And the Board also misses opportunities to guarantee that new schools opening are economically and racially diverse. That’s super important, especially when it’s possible to achieve such an outcome.

In the MCPS construction pipeline is a second middle school for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster. Let’s turn back the clock and revisit the decision-making around this second middle school — with the assumption that boundary changes are on the table and seriously in the mix.

Joseph HawkinsThe Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster now has one middle school, Westland, located on Massachusetts Avenue. This part of Bethesda is fairly affluent, with homes commonly selling for a million dollars or more.

This wealth is reflected in Westland’s demographics: Westland’s FARMS rate is 11.9 percent. (FARMS stands for free and reduced meals and school systems use FARMS as a stand-in for judging a school’s poverty rate.) Based on the numbers, Westland is not a school heavily impacted by poverty.

Let’s not forgot Westland is overcrowded and jammed to the roof lines. This reality is not being questioned, and is one of the reasons behind the plans for a second middle school in the cluster.

The new B-CC middle school, the yet-to-be-named B-CC Middle School #2, will be constructed at 3701 Saul Rd. in Kesington. Exactly two miles north from the site sits Newport Mill Middle School also in Kensington. Newport Mill was renovated in 2002 and has capacity to enroll 825 students. At the end of the 2013-14 school year, there were 614 students enrolled, meaning Newport Mill is a rare Montgomery County school that has significant capacity remaining.

Exactly 2.7 miles from Newport Mill is Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring. Sligo has capacity to enroll 937 kids. At the end of the 2013-14 school year, there were 446 students enrolled. So this middle school has excess capacity of 491 seats.

Together, Newport and Sligo had room for 691 more students during the 2013-14 school years. By the way, the FARMS rate for Newport and Sligo are 56.2 percent and  47.8 percent, respectively.

Now, MCPS projects the number of enrolled students at both school will steadily increase in the next five years and it would probably go to the mat with the public on this one. But these two middle schools have remained under-capacity for years. In fact, Sligo is so under-enrolled MCPS allowed a well-known community non-profit to occupy space in the building.

Let’s revisit these realities with boundary changes in play. Turning back the clock, one could make the argument for two distinct solutions to solve Westland’s overcrowding — neither requiring the Board to approve the construction of a new school.

– Solution 1: Redraw boundaries, sending the excess Westland kids to either Newport or Sligo. The space is there.

– Solution 2: Accept the MCPS facts that new capacity is required, but instead of building a new B-CC middle school #2, build out Newport, adding capacity. Then reshuffle boundaries between Newport, Sligo, and Westland. This approach would certainly save money. In the long run, it is less expensive to operate three middle schools than it is to operate four middle schools.

Both solutions would mean breaking traditional middle school-to-high school articulation patterns and assignments that have defined our school clusters, but so what, it’s not the of end of the world. More important than anything else, MCPS ends up with several schools that more economically diverse — a good thing in my opinion.

Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who remembers when there was no Capital Crescent Trail. He works full-time for an employee-owned social science research firm located Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for the Montgomery Journal. He also has essays and editorials published in Education Week, the Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He is a serious live music fan and is committed to checking out some live act at least once a month.


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