Montgomery County school board members think the board has not engaged well with Latino, African-American and Asian communities and that “traditionally marginalized communities” are underrepresented in the
board’s efforts to reach the public, according to a June 18 school system memo.
The memo drew its conclusions from interviews with board members, who affirmed the difficulties in engaging community members.
School board Vice President Patricia O’Neill said the board more often hears from “well-connected, engaged parents,” O’Neill said.
“I think we have traditionally responded to people who are squeaky wheels and there’s a whole big community that doesn’t engage with us,” she said.
O’Neill and other board members say, however, they are working on a plan to improve how they interact with the community.
One challenge found among structures, policies and practices involves “the underrepresentation/neglect/oppression of traditionally marginalized communities,” the memo says.
School board member Judith Docca (Dist. 1) of Montgomery Village said it’s “not exactly oppression” that’s occurring, rather circumstances that make it difficult for some to participate.
“I don’t know that I necessarily agree with that phrasing,” O’Neill said, referring to the the memo’s description of “neglect.”
The memo later says the board members identified “a myriad of population groups” that the board has “not traditionally engaged with in effective ways,” including Latino, African-American and Asian communities.
The list of groups also includes parents who aren’t interested in engaging with the school system or don’t know how to.
O’Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda said the board recently discussed how to improve communication and public engagement, focusing on the topic during the first day of its two-day retreat on Wednesday and Thursday.
Gislaine Ngounou, who was a doctoral resident in the school system this past school year, wrote the memo to school board members and Superintendent Joshua P. Starr in light of the retreat.
O’Neill said she thinks that some parents and others aren’t vocal because of factors such as multiple jobs that keep them busy or expectations formed in a different culture about engagement with schools.
Docca said she sees that, on community days held by the superintendent, some underrepresented community members don’t attend or, if they do, sometimes get “overtalked by other people.”
“They’re sitting there and they can’t get a word in edgewise,” she said.
One idea highlighted at the board’s retreat, O’Neill said, was how board members could reach more people by meeting them “where they are” rather than with traditional methods such as through a parent-teacher association. New places to engage community members might be workplaces, shopping centers and grocery stores, she said.
Another challenge the board faces, the memo says, is “the underrepresentation of children/youth in the system’s work groups.”
O’Neill said she thinks that students are underrepresented in school system work groups because of a combination of not knowing about the groups and having schedules that might not allow them to attend the meetings.
She said the school board’s student members she has served with have been important voices.
“They’re a reality check for us,” she said.
Docca said she thinks board members should seek out a variety of students to talk to them about the issues.
“We don’t just want SGA students, and we get them because they’re already motivated and really into the mix,” she said.
School board member Rebecca Smondrowski (Dist. 2) of Gaithersburg said in a Friday email that she looks forward to reviewing a plan on community engagement that board members and administrators are developing.
Smondrowski said that school system staff, administrators and board members are already working hard to engage as many people as possible.
“Of course some folks/groups are harder to reach than others.. so we want to do whatever we can to change that because its important to our students, its important to our schools, and its important to our communities,” she said in the email.