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Education


Segregation is causing Montgomery County schools' achievement gap, but Josh Starr won't admit it

A new report says Montgomery County schools are becoming segregated by income, race, and ethnicity and that "white flight" is occurring in the lowest-performing schools. But officials deny that it's even happening.


Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

This week, the county's Office of Legislative Oversight released its findings on the achievement gap in Montgomery County Pubic Schools. Researchers note that low-income, black, and Latino students are still lagging their more affluent, white, and Asian peers, especially as both groups grow increasingly concentrated in different parts of the school system.

While MCPS as a whole is a majority-minority school system and has been for over a decade, most low-income, black, and Latino students attend one of 11 high schools, mostly in Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Gaithersburg. Meanwhile, higher-income students, as well as 80% of the school system's white students and 67% of its Asian students, now cluster at schools on the western side of the county, including the vaunted "W schools" in or near Bethesda.

An achievement gap between schools

The result is an "achievement gap ... between [high-poverty] high schools and [low-poverty] high schools" in which all students perform worse, notes Dr. Elaine Bonner-Tompkins, who produced the report. Those 11 "high-poverty" schools include the Northeast Consortium, with Blake, Paint Branch, and Springbrook; the Downcounty Consortium, with Blair, Einstein, Kennedy, Northwood, and Wheaton; and three schools in the upcounty, Gaithersburg, Seneca Valley and Watkins Mill.

Students at these schools are less likely to graduate on time, to maintain grades high enough to participate in extracurricular activities, and to earn high scores on AP exams or the SAT. Meanwhile, they're nearly twice as likely to drop out of high school or get suspended.

Whether real or perceived, the performance of high-poverty schools in East County may be leading to white flight. Dr. Bonner-Tompkins notes that the share of white and Asian families at high-poverty schools is falling faster than the rest of the school system, suggesting that they're fleeing for low-poverty schools with better reputations.

The study, which then-Councilmember Valerie Ervin commissioned, is a follow-up to a 2009 report about the Northeast and Downcounty consortia. The consortia gave students a choice of several different high schools as a way to promote racial and economic integration, which studies show can improve academic performance. Both reports conclude that MCPS policies designed to reduce segregation "have not worked as intended."

Starr denies that "white flight" is even happening

School officials were quick to dismiss many of the report's findings. In a four-page response, superintendent Joshua Starr called suggestions of white flight in MCPS "unsupported" and said that the school system wasn't to blame for larger demographic changes in the larger community.

"The [Downcounty and Northeast consortia] communities have become important locations for families with limited means to reside and raise their children," wrote Starr, linking the growing concentration of low-income and minority students in East County schools to "disparities in the spread of wealth and race/ethnicity across the county."

Starr also dismisses the notion that minorities or low-income students are isolated in certain schools. He says the report's own demographic findings, which come from MCPS data, "clearly demonstrates very diverse student populations at the consortia high schools." Does Starr really think a school like Wheaton, where there are few white students and almost 4 out of 5 students receive reduced lunch, is a more diverse school than Whitman in Bethesda, where there are virtually no black or poor students?

MCPS doesn't cause school segregation, but it contributes to it

It's true that the school system isn't directly responsible for socioeconomic and racial segregation in Montgomery County. The western side of the county has historically been more affluent, and over time has drawn most of the county's jobs, shopping, and other amenities. But MCPS does contribute to segregation so long as some of its schools are perceived as better than others, whether those perceptions are real or fake.

MCPS is quick to announce positive statistics about its schools; just this week, it issued a press release that 8 of its high schools led the US in the Washington Post Challenge Index, a nationwide measure of academic rigor. All but one of those schools are on the western side of the county and have a relatively small amount of black, Latino, or low-income students.

Rankings like that send a message to families looking for the best schools, and those who have the means to choose vote with their wallets. It shows in home prices, which are three times higher in the Whitman High catchment in Bethesda than they are at Seneca Valley in Germantown, one of the county's worst-performing schools. It also shows in the attendance at each school.

In their push for school construction funding, county leaders have noted that MCPS is adding 2,000 students each year, and that schools are becoming overcrowded. But for every high-ranked school like Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, which is nearly 300 students over capacity, there are lower-ranked schools like Springbrook in Silver Spring, which was built for 2,100 but has just 1,700 students, and Watkins Mill, with nearly 500 empty seats.

We can't run away from these issues

MCPS officials say this report isn't news. It's true: there have been warnings about segregation, and the potential consequences for Montgomery County schools, for over 20 years. But the school system has done little about it, and Dr. Starr insists that integration won't close the achievement gap.

As he points out in his letter, Dr. Starr does have some promising initiatives for closing the achievement gap, like smaller class sizes, or extra pay to recruit and retain strong teachers in high-needs schools, though he's not afraid to use them as a bargaining chip for more funding. That's why it's frustrating that he seems so unwilling to talk about or even acknowledge the school system's issues.

The role of Montgomery County Public Schools isn't just to teach, or to prepare students for happy, successful lives. It's also one of the county's major assets, a tool used to attract families of all backgrounds who want to move here for their kids and for businesses who want to come here so they can hire our graduates. If there's an impression that not all Montgomery County schools are up to speed, that's bad for our kids, bad for our neighborhoods, and bad for our economy.

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Pedestrians


What if we ranked schools based on their walkability?

Parents often choose schools for their kids based on test scores. But as more families seek out an urban lifestyle, what if we ranked schools on a kid's ability to walk there as well?


Locations of the region's most walkable high schools. Blue are schools in a "Walker's Paradise," red are "Very Walkable" schools, and green are "Somewhat Walkable." Click for an interactive map.

Studies show that kids who live in walkable neighborhoods get more exercise and are at reduced risk for obesity. Being able to walk to school teaches kids independence and a stronger sense of community as well.

So where are students most likely to be able to walk to and from school? One indicator is a school's Walk Score, a measure of its walkability. To find the region's most walkable schools, I looked at the Walk Score of 95 public high schools (both neighborhood and magnet) in the District, Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, and the city of Alexandria and Arlington and Fairfax counties in Virginia. Here's a spreadsheet of all of the schools.

There were 22 schools in the "top 20," which I've mapped above. (Three schools tied for 20th place.) Not surprisingly, nine of them are in the District. But there are also six in Montgomery County, two each in Prince George's and Arlington, and one each in Alexandria and Fairfax. Seven of them are outside the Beltway.

Four schools were in the "Walker's Paradise" category, Walk Score's highest ranking. School Without Walls in downtown DC, came in first with a Walkscore of 97, followed by Columbia Heights Education Campus (94), and Woodrow Wilson High School in Tenleytown (92). Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Montgomery County made fourth place, with a score of 91.

Of course, Walk Score isn't a perfect measure of walkability. It only measures an address's proximity to commercial and institutional destinations, not the homes where students might be walking from. And it doesn't consider the actual pedestrian experience. Seneca Valley High in Germantown, where a student died crossing the highway outside the school last year, placed 13th on the list with a score of 72.


Rockville Town Square is the de facto cafeteria of Richard Montgomery High School (Walk Score 65), located a few blocks away. All images by the author.

Some of these schools also have high academic ratings, like Richard Montgomery and B-CC in Montgomery, McLean in Fairfax, and Banneker in DC, all of which top the regional rankings in the Washington Post's Challenge Index. But there aren't a lot of them, and they're in expensive neighborhoods. Many of the schools on this list are low performers; forced to choose, parents will usually always pick high test scores over a kid's ability to walk to school.

My parents were no different. As a student at Wilson in the 1970s, my mother walked to lunch at Steak 'N Egg Kitchen or to catch the 30 bus to her job at a clothing store in Georgetown. But I went to James Hubert Blake High School near Olney (Walk Score 11, or "car-dependent"), where nearly everyone drove, and gruesome car accidents were a fact of life. I once begged my principal for open lunch, but it wouldn't ever happen: the nearest place to eat was over a mile away on a 40mph road with no sidewalks.

What else do you see in these rankings? And did you walk to school?

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Education


Can we close the gap in Montgomery's schools?

As Montgomery County's public schools grow more diverse, the achievement gap between rich and poor students, and the schools they attend, grows wider. In response, a new group of parents, neighbors, and community leaders has come together to fight for a more equitable school system.


Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville. Photo by the author.

Montgomery County Public Schools is one of the best school systems in the nation. But the isolation of minority and low-income students in the system, coupled with middle-class flight from the county's lower-ranked schools, means MCPS can't always keep its promise of a high-quality eduation to its students and our community. We know that disadvantaged students perform better in socioeconomically diverse schools, and while MCPS has long been a leader in school integration, there's a lot more it needs to do.

But the school system's stellar reputation often means that these issues get ignored or brushed aside, even by MCPS top officials who insist that things are going fine.

The stability of our neighborhoods and the strength of our economy are closely connected to the quality of our public schools. While our schools can't solve social and economic ills, they play a huge role in correcting them. That's why good schools aren't just an issue for parents and students, but for all residents, for community leaders, and for our local businesses.

So that's the bad news. The good news is that we can do something about it. Over the past several weeks, I've been working with a group of East County residents and the Greater Colesville Citizens Association to start an organization that will advocate for a stronger, more equitable school system.

We're called One Montgomery, and Thursday, November 14 we're hosting a community workshop to talk about the issues affecting MCPS today and potential ways we can work with the school system, Montgomery County, and the state of Maryland to fix them. Join us at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, 13925 New Hampshire Avenue in Colesville. We'll have a meet-and-greet starting at 7pm, followed by the meeting at 7:30.

For more information, you can download this flyer. You can also join the conversation on our new blog, Twitter, Facebook, and on our listserv.

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History


Visit an abandoned Catholic school in Anacostia

Since June 2007, a three-story Catholic school in Historic Anacostia has sat quietly, unused and largely unnoticed. Last week, staff from the Archdiocese of Washington took me on a tour of the abandoned building, last known as the Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, with a small group of architects and contractors.


"Schools [sic] out." All photos by the author unless noted.

The school opened on V Street SE in the first decade of the 20th century for children of the nearby parish of Saint Teresa of Avila. It's one block over from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and its cramped visitor's center. With capital, vision, and proper management, this vacant school house could complement the Douglass site as a true visitor's center, capable of capturing out-of-town dollars from the more than 50,000 annual visitors to the neighborhood destination.


The old Saint Teresa School at 1409 V Street SE in Historic Anacostia. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.


The boarded-up school was last used during the 2006-2007 academic year and awaits a rebirth and reuse.

But until then, let's take a tour of the school as it is today. Perched on a knoll above V Street, the brick exterior of the school is painted white and green and is in good condition.


The vacant multi-purpose room in the rear of the school.

I enter the rear of the school with the group through the multi-purpose room. The basketball backboards remain, without the rims. On a door hangs an activity calendar from March 2006. According to neighborhood sources, the school also served as a community center in the evenings during the 1980s and 1990s.


A dark hallway.

The school still has electricity, but many of the lights are out as I walk into the hallway. To enter the school, a facilities manager had to disarm the alarm. A member of the group remarks, "Kind of eerie."

Other than peeled paint, cracked floor tiles, and bathrooms with destroyed sinks and toilets, the interior of the building is sound, but there is probably a lot of asbestos in the building. Any possible renovation would require removing asbestos or lead-based paint.


"Choppa City" was here.

Inside one of the classrooms, it appears that neighborhood children at some time gained access to the school. Across a blackboard someone wrote "V-BLOCK" with "Choppa City," the name of a local street crew, written in cursive inside of the "O."


Classroom adorned with Warner Brothers characters.

You can see how the classrooms once looked when school was in session. Above one blank chalkboard, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Speedy Gonzales, Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner, and Yosemite Sam with two pistols drawn look out on the spirits of former pupils. Casper the Friendly Ghost adorns the walls of another room. Underneath one of the apparitions is a road sign that reads "Ghost Town." Being a former Catholic school, in this room and other parts of the building are signs and drawings of Jesus.


A plaque in the library.

In the second-floor library, no books remain on the wood shelves that line the perimeter of the room. Three of the room's four windows are boarded up. A plaque on the wall states, "Library Established by Sr. Mary Dolorine 1955 Sponsored By The Mother's Club."

On a chalkboard in a 3rd floor classroom, "Taylor Tucker," remains alongside a note reading, "Schools [sic] out -> So Ugly." In the upper left-hand corner is the date of the last day of school, June 4, 2007. As I pick up a loose piece of chalk to write my name on the board, I hear someone call out, "The roof's open!"

I ascend the stairwell and walk on to the roof. Everyone in my cavalcade has their cell phone out, snapping unobscured panoramic photos of the city's skyline: the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome the most noticeable, the Washington Cathedral further off in the distance.


A panorama of Washington's skyline from the roof.

Someone points to the Douglass house. "What's that?" They ask.

I respond, "The home of Fred Douglass, resident of Anacostia from fall 1877 to his death in late February 1895." I snap a few photos of Douglass's mansion through the southside canopy.


View of Frederick Douglass's home from the roof.

"This would make a great rooftop restaurant, don't you think?" someone asks.

"Yeah, but they would have to go through zoning and [Historic Preservation Review Board] first," replies another visitor, a contractor. "But it sure would be one of the coolest restaurants in the city. You can look at the Douglass house or you can look at the Capitol."

After ten minutes of marveling at the views, we make our way back through the empty school. Two young architects ask the facilities manager if the school has a basement. It doesn't he replies, it has a boiler room which he shows the two visitors.

Once we are all back out on V Street, we thank the staff of the Archdiocese for the tour and promise to be in touch. In the meanwhile the old Saint Teresa School sits and awaits a rebirth and productive reuse. With recent news that the city wants to get tourists off the National Mall and brand its neighborhood attractions as "cool," the old Saint Teresa School might be the perfect place to launch the campaign.

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Education


MCPS superintendent responds to my Post op-ed

On Friday, Montgomery County Public Schools superintendent Joshua Starr responded to my Post op-ed about the inequities in the school system. But he didn't provide any real answers.


Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Last week, Dr. Starr spoke at the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, and chair Evan Glass asked him what he thought of my column. Dr. Starr said, "There's no shortage of self-professed experts on education because they went to school."

He later said he'd have a more thorough response to my column. On Friday, the Post published it:

To paraphrase one of my favorite authors, his report of our demise is greatly exaggerated.

Reed says that MCPS is "coasting on the system's good reputation" and is no longer "great," in essence because our schools have gotten more diverse and our students poorer . . .

Our focus is rightly on raising student achievement across the board, thereby narrowing achievement gaps and giving our students the best possible chance at success once they graduate. I believe one way to narrow those gaps is by working with every school community to focus on the needs of individual students, rather than simply putting more programs in place or trying to change housing patterns.
I'm glad that Dr. Starr decided to respond to my column. But between that and his comments on Monday night, it doesn't seem like he's taking my argument seriously.

While I did go to public school in Montgomery County, I don't claim to be an expert. Nearly all of the data I mentioned in the column, and wrote about in the preceding blog posts, comes from MCPS. Researchers from the school system, and from the County Council's Office of Legislative Oversight, have told me privately that the data is not only correct, but that the conclusions I drew from the data are valid.

On Monday, Dr. Starr told me he would respond to the "distortions" and "mischaracterizations" in my findings. But nowhere did he actually do that. In fact, he mischaracterized the core of my argument. MCPS isn't getting worse because it has more minorities and poor students, but because disadvantaged students are increasingly concentrated in East County and Upcounty schools. Closing the "achievement gap" becomes a lot harder when some schools bear the burden of giving disadvantaged students the help they need, while schools in the wealthier parts of the county are largely excused from it.

It's true that as the head of the school system, Dr. Starr doesn't have any control over land use or housing decisions. But he has to understand that inequities in the school system can create and perpetuate de facto segregation and hurt the county's economic development, as families opt out of schools, and in turn neighborhoods that they deem undesirable. Schools aren't the only reason why the median home price in the top-ranked Whitman cluster is as much as four times as high as it is lower-ranked catchments, but it is a major influence.

And if Dr. Starr wants to quote studies saying that "hopefulness" affects student achievement, he can't simultaneously ignore studies saying that integration does as well. He dismissed one of my recommendations to reduce segregration, making small changes to school boundaries. But there are many other things I propose that MCPS and the county can do to make every school great, and he didn't address any of them.

As I wrote in my column, Montgomery County has the resources to make every school great. But since I first wrote about de facto segregation in MCPS two months ago, I've heard from parents, community leaders, business leaders, school advocates, teachers, and even a couple of principals from all over the county who are frustrated with the current state of affairs, whether it's at specific schools or in the county as a whole.

They sound ready to engage Dr. Starr in a real conversation about the school system's future. Hopefully, he's ready too.

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Education


Plan to rank charter preschools is a good first step

The Public Charter School Board has proposed a new system for evaluating charter preschools, and some parents are up in arms. The system may not be perfect, but when the Board takes up the proposal on Monday it should vote to approve it.


Photo by Lethbridge College on Flickr.

Last month the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) unveiled a plan to rank charter schools serving young children according to a formula that includes assessments of literacy and math skills. Within days, a petition protesting the move had garnered over 200 signatures. The PCSB is scheduled to vote on the issue at its meeting on Monday, September 16th.

Some opponents of the proposal are laboring under the misconception that 3-year-olds will be filling in bubbles on standardized tests with Number 2 pencils. Others argue that the PCSB should give more weight to assessments of "social and emotional learning," a category that includes skills like taking turns and controlling emotional outbursts.

Let's start with a threshold question: why is the PCSB evaluating preschools at all? Other charter authorizers don't do it. But that may be because no other authorizers have jurisdiction over preschools. DC is the only place in the nation where public charter preschools exist, and the PCSB feels it needs to monitor these programs to ensure that millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent responsibly.

The PCSB has applied its Performance Management Framework (PMF) to elementary and secondary charter schools for the past two years. Now it's simply adjusting and extending the PMF to schools serving younger children. But partly because the PCSB is the canary in this particular mine, it's getting a lot of flak for doing it.

Some view preschool as akin to daycare, a place where kids should be kept safe while their parents are otherwise occupied and maybe learn to play nicely with their peers. But research has pointed to high-quality preschool as the key to closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students. If kids start kindergarten a year or two below where they should be in terms of readiness to learn, they may never catch up.

Especially in the District, where the majority of 3rd-graders perform below grade level and the achievement gap stubbornly persists, ensuring the quality of early childhood education is vital. And ranking charter preschools can help parents find the schools that are doing it best.

Tests are observations

It's important to bear in mind that the "tests" the PCSB is proposing to use have little resemblance to the standardized tests that older children take. While the format varies, they all consist of some kind of observation. The children aren't even aware they're being tested, says Jack McCarthy, CEO of the highly regarded AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter Schools. Some of the tests begin with the teacher saying, "Let's play a game."

A test of "receptive language," McCarthy explains, might consist of the teacher showing a child a picture and saying, "Show me the bus." To test "expressive language," the teacher might say, "What's this a picture of?" and look for the answer, "A bus." A teacher administering a "math test" might ask a child to make a triangle with popsicle sticks.

Some assessments call on the teacher to review observations of a child made over the previous several weeks. Others bring in a principal or coach to observe how the teacher interacts with the class. And it's the school that's being rated by the PCSB, not the kids. Plus, the charter preschools are all using these tests already.

So the concern that children will be stressed by the tests seems misplaced. What about the objection that the PCSB is putting too much weight on reading and math skills and not enough on social and emotional learning (SEL)?

That charge has been leveled by, among others, Sam Chaltain, a DC education blogger and charter preschool parent. Chaltain initiated the petition, which to date has 280 signatures, asking the PCSB to change its evaluation formula.

The proposed PCSB formula not only places more weight on reading and math readiness than on SEL, it also makes testing the latter optional. If a preschool chooses to have SEL included, it counts for only 15% of its overall score, while literacy and math skills together count for 45%. If a school opts to omit SEL, literacy and math count for 60%. At the kindergarten level the optional SEL component decreases to 10%, and reading and math can count for as much as 80%. (Additional factors include attendance and re-enrollment rates.)

Too much weight on reading and math?

Opponents of the formula argue, reasonably enough, that this uneven weighting will lead schools to emphasize reading and math skills over SEL when in fact they're all connected. Chaltain advocates a formula that would give equal weight to all three measures, while also factoring in things like creativity.

Those on the other side of the issue don't disagree about the interconnectedness of SEL and academic skills. "It's like asking, what do you need to create water, hydrogen or oxygen?" says McCarthy. "You need both. The same is true with school readiness."

But while McCarthy and Sara Mead, a member of the PCSB, agree that SEL is just as important as reading and math, they say it's harder to measure. Research shows that tests of literacy and math skills are better predictors of future success than currently available tests of SEL, Mead has said.

And determining whether a child has, for example, acquired the ability to resolve disputes by "using his words" is inherently a more subjective exercise than determining whether he's learned his letters. Some charters may be unwilling to have their scores based partly on tests that are still considered unreliable.

Both McCarthy and Mead also point to another mandatory measure in the preschool formula, an observational test called CLASS, part of which measures how well a teacher is supporting a child's social and emotional development.

McCarthy says that much of the SEL research is new, and that in time better measures are likely to emerge. Eventually, he predicts, the PCSB's weighting will change.

"I look at this as a first step," he says. "No one has done this yet."

This appears to be one of those times when we shouldn't allow the perfect to stand in the way of the pretty darn good. The preschool PMF has been almost three years in the making, and most charter preschool operators in the District were involved in its creation and support it.

And the CLASS assessment, which counts for 30% of the preschool score, is a measure of child-teacher interaction that should help to ensure a nurturing, stimulating environment and guard against the kind of rote drilling that opponents of the proposed formula fear. So let's at least give the PCSB's proposal a try before condemning it.

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