Bracing for growth, Montgomery Co. Public Schools get set for a new year

ROCKVILLE, Md. — In Maryland, school starts after Labor Day. And with just days to go, many school systems continue to make sure there are enough teachers to greet students on the first day of school. Montgomery County is no different.

Preparing for growth

In his offices at the Board of Education in Rockville, Dr. Jack Smith, Montgomery County school superintendent, said that as of noon Wednesday, the school system had hired 954 teachers for the coming school year.

“We may have hired a couple of more since then,” Smith added, “but we are 97 percent staffed.”

The new hires are especially important at a time when enrollment continues on an upward trend. Last year enrollment grew by 2,000 students, and this year the number of new students coming into the system is projected at 2,400. According to the county’s website, there are currently 161,000 students attending Montgomery County schools.

Demand for teachers

Every year, school systems work to make sure they have enough teachers in areas that are chronically hard to fill. Smith can tick off those subject areas without having to refer to any notes.

Teachers of “languages, math, physics, math-based sciences, computer sciences” and English are in short supply, he said. The lack of English teachers in particular, he said, caught him off guard, as there are typically lots of applicants.

“Nationally we’re seeing precipitous drops of people getting their certification right out of college,” Smith said.

Rough first year

Smith’s first year as the superintendent of Montgomery County schools featured an event that roiled the community: an allegation that two students, both of whom happened to be immigrants in the country illegally, had raped a 14-year-old girl in a boy’s bathroom at Rockville High school.

The shocking allegations even got the attention of the White House when then-press secretary Sean Spicer commented on the case.

Enraged parents and concerned community members in March attended a town-hall-style meeting at the high school, where parents demanded to know how such a horrific event could happen and why students who weren’t in the country legally were being allowed in classes.

At the time, Smith urged parents to withhold judgment and let the legal process play out. He was accused of coddling criminals. And Smith and Rockville staff were subject to vicious criticism and threats of violence, school spokesman Derek Turner said.

When the case was first reported, defense attorneys for the two students accused of the rape said the act was consensual and their clients were therefore not guilty of rape. Later, county State’s Attorney John McCarthy announced that his office was dropping the charges, citing a lack of evidence to back up the allegations.

Asked about the turmoil and the case, and whether Smith felt vindicated, he said, “I don’t feel vindicated, because I didn’t feel wronged.” In an age when social media can speed information — verified or not — across the globe in seconds, it’s necessary to take stock of what’s being said, Smith said. “All we have to think about is, if this were my son or daughter being charged with this, would I want them to be treated fairly and justly? I would, and so would everyone else,” he said.

The Rockville case, Smith said, quickly became an issue of immigration.

“I will always say — and people may not agree with me, and that’s their right — that we need to serve and educate every child in our community every time all the time.”

Smith also pointed out that it’s against federal law to deny education to a child based on that student’s immigration status.

“To not serve a 6-year-old or an 8-year-old or a 12-year-old or an 18-year-old is, I think, fundamentally wrong, and it’s not what our country is built on,” Smith said.

School safety and employee training

Recently, a longtime Montgomery County teacher was sentenced in a case of child sexual abuse.

John Vigna, who taught at Cloverly Elementary school, was sentenced to 48 years in prison for his role in abusing students at the school. Critics of the school system’s handling of the investigation pointed out that Vigna’s behavior had been documented, and that administrators had told him several times to stop any physical contact with students, yet he was allowed to continue teaching.

The school system has worked to improve the ways in which it responds to concerns of possible abuse by staff members, Smith said.

“When it happens, if there’s any hint of it, we must immediately stop and remove that adult from the setting” he said.

At the same time, Smith added, “This is still a country where you are innocent until proven guilty.”

Post-Labor Day start to school

This year, thanks to an executive order from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, schools are opening after Labor Day. In Prince George’s County, Dr. Kevin Maxwell, school CEO, joined County Executive Rushern Baker to support a move to reverse that decision and allow for local control.

Smith was asked if he is working to change the start date. “Our school board would have to decide if they want to take that position, because I work for them,” he said.

But Smith added that what communities need or want in terms of scheduling could differ across the state. “I certainly think local control is a smart thing when it comes to a school calendar,” he said.

Excitement for the coming year

This year, a new middle school is opening.

Silver Creek Middle School in Kensington will open for sixth- and seventh-graders and serve more than 540 students in the first year. Total enrollment is projected to be about 800 when the eighth grade is added in the 2018-2019 academic year.

One of Smith’s favorite parts of his job, he said, is visiting schools. Last year, for instance, he sat in on a high school discussion of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” a personal favorite. “It was just so much fun to listen to them”, he said.

Another memorable moment, he said, was visiting a middle school where students were writing code for robots. “It was very cool” he said.

Asked what he might do differently in the coming year, Smith said he’d work to spend more time in the county’s schools.

“Going into schools always reminds us what our business is and why we do it,” he said.

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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