Redrawing school boundaries could help diversify classrooms and close the county’s persistent student achievement gap, some County Council members said Monday during a meeting with school officials.
School officials pushed back against the idea, however, saying such changes involve many factors beside student diversity. New boundaries can exclude as well as include students, and they would not be a “silver bullet” to the growing problem.
The conversation, which also covered principal leadership and the role of tests in lessons, was spurred by a report in April that showed growing differences in academic performance and demographics between the county’s high- and low-poverty public high schools.
The council’s Education Committee held the meeting, and other members also participated.
The report from the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight found that the county’s high-poverty high schools have most of the county’s black and Latino students — and increasingly so since 2010. Most of the system’s white and East and South Asian students attend the low-poverty schools, also in growing numbers since 2010.
The gaps have grown in recent years based on four of seven measures, including Advanced Placement test scores, SAT and ACT scores, and out-of-school suspensions, according to the report.
A 2010 report by the Century Foundation compared high-poverty county students who attended high-poverty schools, with high-poverty students who lived in mixed-income neighborhoods and therefore attended more diverse schools. The latter group performed better in school, according to the report.
County Council President Craig L. Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown asked the school officials if boundary changes were under consideration or “off the table.”
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said diversity is not the only factor the school system considers before a boundary change and that redrawing boundaries to include certain students would mean excluding others.
“I think if the council wants that to be the determining factor in the integration of schools, then it should be clear about who it wants in schools and who it wants out of schools,” Starr said after the meeting.
New boundaries are “not a panacea in any way, shape or form” to close the achievement gap, he said, and the school system has no plan to study them.
School board President Philip Kauffman told the council members that the board’s policy does not call for students to be redirected if a certain community has a low number of low-income or minority students.
Rather, he said, the school system has used programs such as language immersion or magnet programs to place students in a school other than the one they would normally attend based on where they live.
Councilwoman Cherri Branson (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said that, although people often don’t like boundary changes, she thinks the school system needs to be more open to the idea.
“I’m not suggesting that integration in and of itself is any sort of magical solution to anything, but I’m very troubled by this notion that somehow these boundaries are off limits,” Branson said.
Starr said altered boundaries are not off limits.
Boundary changes won’t happen voluntarily, Rice said, and would involve a “difficult discussion” with community members that he’s willing to have.
Kauffman said he thinks the council also has a role to play influencing school diversity based on where it plans for new affordable housing.
The school system is planning a study looking at why students choose to attend a school that is not their home school and related issues, Starr said.
Other council members highlighted other areas they think could help close the gap.
Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist.3) of Gaithersburg asked the school officials how much time is spent ensuring schools are led by strong principals — a factor he said he thinks is within the school system’s control and could be quickly controlled.
Kimberly A. Statham, deputy superintendent for school support and improvement, pointed to the system’s six associate superintendents whose role includes overseeing and supporting principals.
The system has placed too much emphasis on testing rather than learning, and past testing has not accurately shown what students know, said Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park.
The school officials shared with the council members current and planned efforts to address the gap, including a new initiative that will offer incentives to high-performing teachers to work at high-needs schools.
Rice said the meeting would not be last between county and school officials on the gap.
School board members responded to the discussion at their Tuesday meeting, including board member Michael Durso, who said he thinks the boundary piece of the discussion is “interesting.”
“I hope we don’t think boundaries are the new silver bullet to save the problems of education,” Durso said.