In talking achievement gap, Montgomery Co.touches on school boundaries

MCPS Superintendent  Joshua Starr (file photo)The prickly subject of redrawing school boundaries to better integrate schools eventually made its way into the discussion of a widening achievement gap on Monday at the County Council.

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr said the school system has never put redrawing boundaries “off limits,” but Councilmember Cherri Branson questioned why traditional boundaries have become regarded by some as “sacrosanct.”

The report that was the topic of Monday’s Education Committee worksession (from the Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight) determined that student achievement between the county’s lower-income and higher-income schools has only become more polarized.

According to the OLO report, the gap in standardized test performance, graduation rates, suspensions and eligibility status between the county’s 11 lower-income high schools and 14 higher-income high schools has widened since MCPS began giving east county and downcounty students some degree of school choice.

The report also found that low-income students in low-poverty schools “were more likely to meet college and career readiness benchmarks and less likely to demonstrate at-risk outcomes than their low-income peers in high-poverty high schools.”

The report spurred a series of suggestions and much local media attention when it was released in April. Some commentators, including Bethesda resident and school integration expert Richard Kahlenberg, suggested MCPS explore ways to allow low-income students to transfer to wealthier schools.

“I’m really confused by the whole notion of boundaries here. It appears to me there are a few schools that would logically be in the Northeast and Downcounty Consortiums by where they’re located,” Branson said. “And they’re not.”

Board of Education President Phil Kauffman said redrawing school boundaries only comes up when new schools are ready to open and that the BOE doesn’t look at boundary issues with minority or socioeconomic demographics in mind.

“The way we have addressed those issues over time has been in the area of special programs, of magnets, language immersion, the consortia,” Kauffman said. “That is something that we’re going to be looking at.”

Kauffman went on to argue that the integration of the county’s school system is also an affordable housing issue. He then put the responsibility for affordable housing squarely on the County Council by questioning if the Council required enough affordable housing in the 2010 White Flint Sector Plan.

“That’s something we need to be more proactive in terms of talking with you,” Kauffman said. “Those are things you need to be cognizant of.”

Starr was careful to point out a multitude of factors — some not in the school system’s control — that contribute to the county’s gap between low-income and wealthy schools.

He also said MCPS will start a long process involving a study and community engagement to establish some sort of baseline agreement for how the school system should approach the related issues of integration and school choice.

But Starr, who oversaw a school district in Stamford, Conn., that has strict racial balance requirements, made it clear MCPS knows just how politically touchy the subject is.

“When you draw boundaries to include, it also means that somebody is out,” Starr said.

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