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My Two Cents: MCPS And The Third Rail

By Joseph Hawkins

Wednesday - 7/16/2014, 10:15am  ET

My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BethesdaNow.com.

third rail

a subject or issue considered by politicians to be too controversial to discuss

This past Monday, I listened to some of the County Council’s discussion of the achievement gap in our public schools. I didn’t listen to all three-plus hours, but I heard enough to know that the issue of changing school boundaries is a serious third rail among Board of Education members.

As a possible gap-closing strategy, changing boundaries was discussed because study after study in Montgomery County reveals that low-income MCPS students perform better when they attend public schools where the student body is economically diverse.

The best study on this issue was one supported by the Century Foundation, which concluded that:

…children in public housing who attended low-poverty schools began to catch up to their non-poor district-mates over the course of elementary school; by the end, they had cut their initial achievement gap in half. The benefit of attending low-poverty schools held, even though the students in public housing attended math classes and, to a lesser degree, reading classes in which other disadvantaged students within their given school were clustered.

In all fairness, the Century/Schwartz study was not a study about using boundary changes to bring about greater economic diversity in public schools.

Joseph HawkinsInstead, the study tracked what happened to poor students who moved to more economically diverse neighborhoods via public housing – and as a result ended up attending more economically diverse public schools. Nonetheless, altering school boundaries — changing them or redrawing lines — also can achieve this result.

Given how controversial some school leaders view boundary changes, I doubt that we will see any significant policy shifts headed our way. I cannot see the current Board taking a comprehensive total system study of the issue.

With that said, I would like to challenge our Board of Education to at least periodically take on the issue as it opens new schools (or even renovates existing ones). One good example — one that top school officials have alluded to in recent days — will be the future elementary school to be built in White Flint.

White Flint is slated to become part of the Walter Johnson High School cluster. I get this decision making, but it is not too late to make sure White Flint is economically diverse.

The exact location of White Flint Elementary is still not known, though it’s likely to sit on or near the existing White Flint Mall property. Geographically speaking, that puts the school between Twinbrook and Garrett Park Elementary schools.

Twinbrook is roughtly 1.5 miles north of the White Flint Metro, and Garrett Park is approximately the same distance to the south of the White Flint Metro. Twinbrook and Garrett Park are approximately 3.5 miles apart.

That’s pretty close as the crow flies and yet, these two schools are day and night when it comes to demographics and socioeconomic factors. At Twinbrook, nearly 70 percent of the students enrolled are receiving Free and Reduced Meals (or FARMS). At Garrett Part, the FARMS rate is 16 percent.

We don’t know for sure what the demographics of the new White Flint will be, but my guess is even with the existence of some moderately priced housing units, White Flint will look more like Garrett Park than Twinbrook. And so if left alone, White Flint likely ends up being a school that is not economically diverse at all.

That would be a shame.

Our Board of Education could alter this reality now. Just redraw the White Flint boundaries, pushing those boundaries into the existing Twinbrook neighborhoods so that White Flint captures more FARMS students.

Would such an action be the end of the world?

Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who remembers when there was no Capital Crescent Trail. He works full-time for an employee-owned social science research firm located Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for the Montgomery Journal. He also has essays and editorials published in Education Week, the Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He is a serious live music fan and is committed to checking out some live act at least once a month.