As a countywide review of Montgomery County school-attendance boundaries unfolds and tension mounts, project leaders on Wednesday held their first community meeting to explain their objectives.
Hundreds of people attended the meeting to receive a briefing from WXY Architecture + Urban Design, the firm MCPS contracted to complete the review.
Consultants outlined their plan for the project, which aims to examine ways in which MCPS could better use its schools to alleviate severe crowding problems that have plagued the district for decades.
Folded into the project’s objectives is analyzing opportunities to create more diverse schools and maximize the number of students able to walk to school.
“From what we’ve seen in listservs and media reports, we know there’s a lot of concern and interest in this process and … everyone brings different perspectives and thoughts,” said Steve Brigham, a project leader with Public Engagement Associates, a company helping with community outreach efforts for the project.
Some community members have praised the work, saying it is a long overdue, comprehensive look at the make-up of MCPS. But many others denounced the project in public forums and online comment sections.
A Facebook Group called “Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools Without Redistricting” had more than 3,100 members as of Wednesday afternoon. In it are hundreds of posts from people concerned about the study’s objectives and fearful of boundary changes that would result in longer bus rides for their children.
Many seem to believe the WXY analysis will result in imminent boundary changes, like a redistricting effort recently completed in Howard County, where 5,400 students were shifted to new schools in an effort to alleviate crowding and break up concentrations of poverty.
For MCPS, though, the work — costing approximately $475,000 — is intended to be more of a data-gathering exercise to help guide decisions during future boundary studies, according to school district officials. Boundary studies are typically authorized when a new school is built or an existing school receives an addition and neighboring schools are crowded.
The consultants will not recommend any specific boundary changes. For example, they will not recommend that a group of students zoned for Walter Johnson High School be rezoned to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
Instead, they will provide a synopsis of how MCPS schools are used, their socioeconomic composition and community members’ thoughts about the project. Data will be compared to similarly sized school districts across the country.
“Their charge was not to tell us what boundaries to change,” school board Vice President Brenda Wolff said in an interview on Wednesday afternoon. “Their charge is to tell us what the lay of the land looks like, give us a snapshot in time about utilization and what it looks like now.”
Part of the project is creating a geospatial tool to map current boundaries and how potential changes based on student demographics, transportation patterns, geographic proximity to schools, and school use might look. WXY will also explore whether there should be periodic boundary reviews.
The firm will use a “school rezoning model” to test school boundary changes and the impact those changes would have.
The tool will be available to the public when it is developed, MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said.
The consultants will provide an interim report in February, including the data they have gathered and information about “opportunities and constraints,” according to WXY’s project plan.
Then, additional community meetings will be held before a final report is presented to the public in May.
To make any boundary changes, the school board would have to authorize a new study for a particular area, or for the entire county, and go through a rigorous review process that generally spans several months.
“Only the board can adopt boundary changes and … it’s a very time-intensive process,” school board member Pat O’Neill said in a recent interview.
Where did the idea for a countywide boundary analysis come from?
The idea for the analysis was introduced in January by former student school board member Ananya Tadikonda.
Tadikonda, a former Richard Montgomery High School student, proposed an analysis to examine crowded schools and “de facto segregation.” The resolution that passed highlights rapidly increasing enrollment and shifting demographic trends as primary factors for the review.
In the resolution, Tadikonda wrote that there are likely many schools with adjacent boundaries with significant disparities in enrollment and demographics that could easily be shifted without drastically increasing students’ commute time. Those decisions can’t be made without accurate data, though, Tadikonda wrote.
“Enrollment increases, population shifts and the increasingly complex challenge of maximizing facilities usage requires that resource allocation decisions be predicated on concert information facilitating fiscally sound decision making,” Tadikonda wrote at the time.
“… Although we cannot address housing patterns or solve socioeconomic inequity challenges within our county, we can examine how such factors might impact, or be mitigated by, how school boundaries are drawn and/or where academic programs are placed and provide the Board with an opportunity to be intentional in creating equitable learning environments that leverage the assets of Montgomery County.”
The MCPS enrollment has grown by more than 11,000 students in 10 years, according to school district data. With about 166,000 students this year, MCPS is one of the largest, most diverse school districts in the country.
More than half of the district’s schools have more students enrolled than their buildings can hold, leading to a more than $5 million annual investment in temporary classrooms.
Dozens of schools have enrollment that surpasses their capacity, while schools in neighboring clusters have space for more students.
As the school district has grown, so, too, has pockets of students in poverty and of certain demographics.
Generally, the lower the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-priced meals (FARMS) — the school district’s indicator of poverty — the better a school does on state and local assessments.
School board members have said they want to create an equitable learning opportunity for all students throughout the county, in part by diversifying schools. They also have said more diverse schools would help prepare students for the “real world,” where they will interact with people of different backgrounds.
“There’s a commitment to ensuring there are equitable resources in the schools, but we have a lot of needs,” board member Karla Silvestre said. “I’m not going to pretend there aren’t services and things we need, and what we also do know is leaving kids in concentrated poverty is not good.”
What factors will consultants examine?
As outlined by school district policy, the consultant will examine four factors during its review:
- Geography: MCPS emphasizes in its policy that as many students as possible should be within “walking distance” of their school. “Walk zones” are defined as roughly a 1-mile radius for elementary schools, 1.5 miles for middle schools and 2 miles for high schools.
- School capacity: The goal for school enrollment is for each facility to be within 80% and 100% of its capacity.
- Demographics: The study will focus specifically on socioeconomic diversity, by balancing FARMS rates.
- Stability over time: District policy says that if a family experiences a boundary change, the same family will not be affected by another boundary change during their student’s time at the same school. The goal is to make the most efficient and effective boundary changes.
While the policy says the school board “should especially strive” to create a diverse student body, board members say different areas of the county have different problems and the goal is to strike a fair balance between the four factors.
Wolff said she has heard many people concerned about “forced, long-distance busing,” like what happened in the 1960s after federal courts mandated that schools desegregate.
“There’s been a lot of talk about busing, and that’s not something we’re trying to address at all,” Wolff said. “We have underutilized and overutilized schools, some within a mile or so of each other. We’re trying to balance those out because you can’t keep going to the county asking for money (for building projects) if you have empty seats.”
Who is WXY Architecture?
WXY is an architecture firm based in New York, with an office in Washington, D.C.
The firm lists several projects it spearheaded across the country relating to diversifying large school districts and examining school boundaries. WXY has done boundary analyses in Boston, Mass.; New York City; New Rochelle, N.Y.; and Lancaster, Pa.
MCPS hired an external consultant to do the work for several reasons, Turner, the school district’s spokesman, said.
First, it’s a lot of work and it would have been unrealistic to ask the staff to do the review, Turner said.
MCPS also wanted to ensure everyone felt the work is credible and unbiased.
“Just having the outside validation is important, because there are some folks who believe every number MCPS puts out can’t be accurate, so having a third party say ‘here’s what the facts are’ hopefully will move some folks to understand,” Turner said. “If not, we’ve done our part.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org