Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said he believes there is no one-size-fits-all approach to school and student success.
Starr and his team have designed a plan for next school year that will allow central office staff to step in when they see problems, or potential, at individual schools.
Twenty schools will be named “intervention” schools and work with a specialist to improve specific student outcomes next school year. Of those, 10 have been named “innovation” schools, and will receive extra support from central office to boost their current school improvement plan.
Although the schools were initially narrowed down by student performance, school officials say other factors played into the selection, and the schools should not be labeled as underperforming.
The 10 innovation schools are: Clopper Mill, Strathmore and Watkins Mill elementary schools; Argyle, A. Mario Loiederman and Montgomery Village middle schools; John F. Kennedy, Springbrook and Watkins Mill high schools; and the alternative programs.
The school system is asking principals to apply for the 10 remaining intervention school spots, and wants to work with schools who already realize the support they need and the commitment it requires, said Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, deputy superintendent of the office of school support and improvement.
The school system will work with the schools to set goals for student performance, and will provide support such as professional development to see that the goals are met, she said.
In a way, the school system is seizing upon a moment of fairly lax school improvement requirements at the federal level to improve how it supports schools, Schiavino-Narvaez said.
Under the federal mandate, No Child Left Behind, local school systems were required to intervene in school operations when the school failed to make progress on state test scores. Maryland schools received a waiver last school year that excuses them from those requirements.
That system measured school progress using just one indicator of student success — test scores — and then required each constantly underperforming school to undergo similar changes, such as restructuring.
Starr said he would like to set up an individualized plan for each school that will build on the strengths and address the weaknesses of each school.
“This approach, we hope, is opposite to [the old one],” Schiavino-Narvaez said.
School system officials said at a school board meeting last week they hope that school communities see this as a positive.
Two principals — Scott Murphy, principal of Watkins Mill High, and Edgar Malker, principal of Montgomery Village Middle — said they understand that some anxiety may come in their community with their school being labeled.
However, both said they are excited about being included.
They said school system officials have been clear to them that they are stepping in to build upon their plan for school improvement, not to create a new one.
“I’m looking forward to sitting down with central office, and letting them hear our story, hear about our journey, and letting them know what that support is that we need,” Malker said.
The school system narrowed down what schools would receive the support first by looking at student achievement indicators such as math and reading state test scores and ineligibility in high school, and then by looking at other “perceptual data” such as school leadership, professional development, climate, and new curriculum implementation, Schiavino-Narvaez said.
At Watkins Mill, Murphy said the International Baccalaureate Programme has been very successful, and the school culture is strong.
But the school also faces challenges, such as making sure all student groups are represented in advanced courses.
The school’s improvement plan states that black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in honors, Advanced Placement and IB courses.
Montgomery Village Middle is very strong when it comes to identifying and practicing effective instruction, Malker said. One thing the school is looking to do is to increase student engagement, he said.
Both principals believe all supports and resources they receive will be aligned with the goals they are already working toward.
At Argyle Middle, sixth-grade team leader Casey Siddons said he considers this to be positive news for his school.
The test scores at the school do not reflect the great work the school is doing, and this will be an opportunity to share some of the great practices and programs the school has, Siddons said.
With a high percentage of low-income students and a high transient rate, the school struggles in areas that some other county schools don’t, he said.
“This will give us the leg up,” he said.
Principals and instructional leaders in the school will work directly with Rebecca Thessin, who will serve as the chief school improvement officer, to design a customized plan of support that is meant to build on the school’s current school improvement plan.
As part of being named an “innovation” school, those 10 schools are also “intervention” schools, and will also work with a newly appointed intervention supervisor next school year, who will examine the success of individual student groups in the school, and help organize support to increase achievement.
Thessin will work closely with the intervention specialist, as well as the associate superintendent assigned to the school, the principal and instructional leadership team to see that everyone is working to the same goals, Schiavino-Narvaez said.
The interventions plan is meant to help address the achievement gaps between students of different races.
When first hearing about the plan, some school board members said they were frustrated that there were not more specifics about new strategies the school system will be using to boost student achievement.
At last week’s board meeting, board member Judith Docca continued to press the school system about specifics.
Before the end of this school year, a needs assessment will be done at each of the innovation schools, to start to detail out individual approaches, Schiavino-Narvaez said at the meeting.