Monday, March 28, 2016

One of Nation's Most Successful Districts Acknowledges Shortfalls in Diversity and Inequality, Makes Plans to Consider Reforms

Earlier this month, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland released a study of their school choice and special programs.  Montgomery County has long had one of the nation's strongest public schools.  Included in its strength has been its commitment to diversity and equal access.  Like most, its implementation is rarely perfect, but this new report and its response to it indicate it is continuing to strive to do better.  The report acknowledges that its current policies have not resulted in the integration and diversity the district seeks.  In fact, it names of some hot-button policies and targets them for reform: admissions criteria to special programs, sibling preferences, and feeder patterns.  Among the most poignant findings and recommendations are:

  • Key Finding 2: Information and communications about MCPS’s wide variety of choice and special academic programs are not filtering to all segments of the community equally, which is impacting equity of access to the programs. MCPS has developed and implemented a wide variety of communication tools to share information about the programs with parents and community members. These include printed materials that are mailed to MCPS households in seven languages; information on the district’s website and PTA listservs and webpages; informational meetings at local schools in English and Spanish; program-level Open Houses; and outreach through school-based counselors, staff, and principals. Despite these efforts, data on program applications and from focus groups indicate that information about these programs is not reaching some segments of the community, namely Hispanic/Latino, Black/African American, non-English-speaking, and low-income families as well as they are to other groups. . . .
    • Recommendation . . .: Develop and implement new strategies for communicating, outreach, recruitment, and sharing information with underrepresented or hard-to-reach families within MCPS. These strategies should include, but not be limited to: Streamlined communications in easily-understood language; Revision of existing communication tools for cultural validity; Outreach to families at community events or locations; More opportunities for one-on-one or in-person communications with and recruitment of families; and Additional materials and events held in languages other than English.
  • Key Finding 3: There are significant racial and socioeconomic disparities in the enrollment and acceptance rates to academically selective programs, which suggest a need to revise the criteria and process used to select students for these programs to eliminate barriers to access for highly able students of all backgrounds. Data on applications and acceptances to elementary centers and secondary magnet and application programs show that Hispanic/Latino, Black/African American, Limited English Proficient (LEP), special education, and low-income students are less likely than White, Asian, and higher income students to be selected and enroll in these programs. As a result, Hispanic/Latino, Black/African American, LEP, special education, vi and low-income students are underrepresented in academically selective programs when compared with districtwide enrollment data. These data are found despite direct efforts by MCPS to increase representation of all groups in the elementary centers and the secondary magnet and application programs. The district utilizes multiple indicators in the selection process that include, in addition to cognitive assessments, teacher recommendations and other school-based input, report card grades, unique student profiles, demographic data such as eligibility for free and reduced-price meals (FARMS), and the lack of an intellectual peer group at the home school. Yet, the lack of diversity and underrepresentation of some student subgroups in these programs suggests that the process may rely too heavily on one or more indicators or may need to consider additional measures of student ability. These indicators may include broadening the definition of gifted to include noncognitive measures such as motivation and persistence, using group-specific norms that benchmark student performance against school peers with comparable backgrounds, offering automatic admissions for students in the top 5-10% of sending elementary or middle schools in the district, or using other methods that are outlined in the report and utilized in other districts across the country. Furthermore, these data also suggest that the district should use additional programs or tools, such as expanding the existing MCPS’s Young Scholars Program to identify students from underrepresented groups in early grade levels for academically selective programs. These programs would serve to increase the applicant pool of underrepresented students and encourage greater levels of participation.
    • Recommendation 3a: Implement modifications to the selection process used for academically competitive programs in MCPS, comprising elementary centers for highly gifted students and secondary magnet programs, to focus these programs on selecting equitably from among those applicants that demonstrate a capacity to thrive in the program, that include use of non-cognitive criteria, group-specific norms that benchmark student performance against school peers with comparable backgrounds, and/or a process that offers automatic admissions to the programs for students in the top 5-10% of sending elementary or middle schools in the district.
    • Recommendation 3b: Invest resources to expand and enhance early talent development programs for students of underrepresented groups in order to bolster participation of a broader segment of the MCPS student population in academically selective programs.
  • Key Finding 4: The district’s implementation of some provisions in the current Board Policy JEE, Student Transfers, does not fully align with MCPS’s goal to provide equitable access to choice and special academic programs. Specifically, the Board’s current Policy includes two provisions that have been implemented in ways that do not fully support equitable access: 1) currently students are automatically admitted to an elementary language immersion program if they have an older sibling who currently attends the program; and 2) students who attend a vii particular middle school may continue in that school’s feeder pattern high school, without regard to programmatic reasons. . . .
    • Recommendation 4a: Consider revisions to Policy JEE, Student Transfers, to clarify that the sibling link for immersion and other choice programs is not automatic; while siblings of applicants should be able to attend the same school where the special academic program is located provided that there are available seats, those siblings should be required to participate in the application process, such as the lottery for immersion programs to earn a seat in the program.
    • Recommendation 4b: To the extent that the district considers revisions to Policy JEE, Student Transfers, to alter the automatic articulation from middle school to high school within the cluster feeder pattern or consider approvals for programmatic requests, MCPS should analyze the impact on both school capacity and its efforts to promote diversity and avoid racial isolation.
  • Key Finding 5: The placement of special academic programs within local schools has increased the diversity of those schools’ student populations; but, in the absence of targeted mechanisms to integrate the program participants and non-participants, it has created conditions of within-school separation. . .

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