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State of the schools in Montgomery County

Monday - 11/11/2013, 6:55pm  ET

WASHINGTON -- Montgomery County public school students outpace their peers on SAT scores across Maryland and across the country, but school superintendent Joshua Starr says there's more work to be done.

In his State of the Schools address at the Music Center at Strathmore on Monday, Starr told a crowd of administrators, local officials and educators that the achievement gap remains an area of concern, as do comparatively high suspension rates for students of color. As an example of that last problem, Starr said while African American students account for 21 percent of the student enrollment, they account for 54 percent of all "nonmandatory" suspensions.

Saying, "You can't change culture by memo," Starr told the audience that the schools are working on new ways to reach all students, including something called "Project-based learning". It's pretty much what it sounds like: classes work on a project that allows students to explore concepts to get a deeper understanding of a given topic. To illustrate his point, Starr showed a video of students at Wheaton High School who built boats out of cardboard. Then they tested the boats in a pool to see which would remain buoyant. In the video, the students involved explained how they had to work together, explore particular lesson objectives, and then execute their project.

Starr also addressed Maryland's new Common Core standards and how they're being implemented in the county. Starr said, "The standards are good," but said "it's also essential for our community to understand that all of the assessments we currently have are being changed to align with the new, global definition of readiness." He explained the state tests, AP and even SAT tests will change within the next few years.

One of the challenges for the school system has been its continued growth. Starr is asking for a 1.5 billion dollar school construction budget over the next six years. He says that's because the county continues to grow at a rapid pace. Montgomery County expects to have an additional 11,000 students over the next six years. Asked if he is counting on the additional money, Starr said, "I expect that our delegation will fight hard for us, they've been great supporters of our system."

Starr has also recommended changing the school system's bell schedule to allow high school students to get more sleep. Under his proposal, high schools would start 50 minutes later, at 8:15 a.m. instead of 7:25 a.m. Asked about that, Starr said the schools are currently getting feedback from communities in a series of forums. "We'll have all the output from that in the spring, and we'll have a decision based on that." If the changes are adopted, they would be implemented in the 2015-2016 academic year.

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