School Boundaries: Stability, Choice, and the Achievement Gap

Editor’s Note: The following is the third in a series of seven guest posts from Sunil Dasgupta on the discussions surrounding the possibility of changing the boundaries of Montgomery County’s public schools.

Since the late 1990s, with enrollment numbers swinging back up, MCPS has built new schools in burgeoning upcounty areas, renovated and expanded old schools to accommodate more students, and reopened some that it had closed during the 1980s retrenchment.

The Board of Education adjusted school boundaries to carve out attendance areas for new schools, but generally emphasized stability of school assignment over improved asset utilization. With the county coffers quite full in those years, fiscal prudence was not a priority.

With time and tightening budgets, these decisions have amounted to fantastic mismatch of resources and students. In 2019, approximately 10,000 out of 162,000 students were housed in 400 temporary portable classrooms while there were about 10,000 vacant seats in other schools. If MCPS could move students from its overcrowded schools to its undercapacity schools, the school system and the county would save a ton of money it is currently slated to spend on new school construction.

If that money could then be moved to the operating budget, MCPS could hire more teachers, give its current teachers more planning time, and even reduce class size. Reducing class size is the single most effective way of improving academic performance, which means that it is the most potent tool available to the school system for addressing the achievement gap. The school board and MCPS leadership see the achievement gap as the single most challenging problem they face.

In the decades of absence of boundary change, the achievement gap in the county public schools has been growing. Without a desegregation court order, MCPS long struggled to match student academic performance across ethnic groups, but the gap has grown wider in the last decade as funding constraints have mounted.

In the 2019 U.S. News and World Report countrywide ranking of high schools, Walt Whitman High School ranked number 93 countrywide and Watkins Mill High School 8402. They are geographically 19 miles and 8309 ranks apart. Quince Orchard High School and Seneca Valley High School—six miles and 5013 ranks away. Quince Orchard and Gaithersburg High School—five miles and 3776 ranks. Sherwood High School and Kennedy High School—seven and a half miles and 3057 ranks.

The racial difference between MCPS schools can be striking: Whitman, for example, is 82 percent white and Asian, and Watkins Mills is 16 percent white and Asian, reflecting underlying differences in home value, socioeconomics, and power differences. The school board recently approved a $24.5 million renovation and expansion of Whitman High School, which is 200 students over its capacity, while other schools with 400 students in portables remain neglected.

Responding to criticism, especially from black and Latinx parent groups, MCPS introduced an equity accountability web-based dashboard where it reports literacy and math scores broken down by ethnic group and poverty rates for each school in the system.

The data currently available in the dashboard is only for 2018, but it is clear that race and poverty are associated with lower scores. Schools with more students from minority and poor families perform worse than schools with fewer minority and poor students.

With some exceptions, majority-minority schools are also underenrolled, highlighting the connection between race, resource allocation, and student performance.

Underenrolled schools face the continuous challenge of losing resources, staffing, and programs. Systematically, undercapacity schools offer fewer advanced courses, have slimmed-down music, arts, and theater programs, and deal with more challenging populations. Extra funding for federal Title 1 schools help, and MCPS has its own category of Focus schools (which can have smaller class sizes), but the best thing would be for the vacant seats in the school to fill up.

Recently, a school principal in mid-county posted a plea on Facebook to recruit more kindergarten students so that the school could keep its three kindergarten teachers. Even as Richard Montgomery High School is overcrowded, Rockville High School, two miles away, was threatened with losing its choir teacher because there were not enough choir students. The crisis was averted, but the challenge of undercapacity schools is eclipsed by the attention given to overcrowded schools, when in fact they are two sides of the same coin.

The challenge lies in convincing families to move their children from overcrowded schools to undercapacity schools. The early motivation behind the magnet programs at Blair and Richard Montgomery High Schools was to entice and keep wealthier white families in schools that were transforming to minority-majority and vulnerable to white flight.

The consortium choices introduced in 1990s pushed the process further along. The Down County and the North East Consortia brought together area schools to give families more choice in what schools their children went to. New special programs were put in place to attract students with different specialist interest.

MCPS is now embarked on expanding magnet IB programs. Richard Montgomery, which used to be the only countywide program, would now be one of four. The other three regional programs will be at Watkins Mills, Kennedy, and Springbrook High Schools, which have historically been considered low performing.

The school system’s strategy of using choice programs to bypass painful redistricting has had mixed results. Blair and Richard Montgomery are considered to be highly successful schools. The magnet programs have not only brought additional students, but also extended its halo to the rest of the school, attracting more students to the schools’ regular programs.

Poolesville High School, which has three major magnet programs, is ranked among the top schools in the county, state, and nationally, but has continued to struggle with numbers due to its location in the county’s sparsely populated agricultural reserve. Einstein and Wheaton High Schools have benefited from housing new programs, but Magruder High School’s aviation program has been underenrolled and the high school itself is under capacity.

From the school climate point of view, special programs inside a school can breed a school-within-a-school-syndrome, separating the select magnet students from the general population, but MCPS is responding to the criticism. Loiederman and Parkland Middle Schools, for example, were set up as all-school magnets; that is, magnet programming was available to all students rather than a select few.

Overall, decades of voluntary choices have not redistributed students sufficiently to take the pressure off. Underenrolled schools face the constant pressure of losing staff and programs. That makes them even less attractive to students, and the enrollment numbers go further down. One part of the achievement gap is certainly this downward spiral.

Tomorrow: Will the Money Talk?

Sunil Dasgupta teaches political science at University of Maryland-Baltimore County and is an MCPS parent. He can be reached on Twitter @sunildasgupta4.

Photo by Mike Diegel

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