Families of color in Montgomery County public schools report incidents of bullying and racial harassment, and Spanish-speaking families say they face bias from staff and the district fails to address their needs, according to a two-year antiracism audit commissioned by MCPS.
The audit, which cost roughly $455,000 and elicited survey responses from 126,000 community members, confirmed what the district expected to learn: Students, staff and families of color have a less satisfactory experience than others in the school community.
The audit by the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium, an education nonprofit based in Bethesda, also found that while MCPS follows best practices and has put in place policies to achieve racial equity, many had been implemented unevenly throughout the district’s schools, leading to a fragmented system. For example, students and family members reported that staff are not trained to teach different racial groups’ histories with nuance and cultural sensitivity, according to the audit.
The audit report presented to the school board Tuesday calls for MCPS to adopt a clear, coherent and comprehensive systemwide approach to antiracism and lists 23 recommendations for action. According to MCPS, antiracism is defined as “actively working to ensure racial justice by identifying, interrupting, and dismantling racist practices, policies and attitudes that disproportionately harm communities of color.”
The recommendations included collecting data more frequently and being more transparent with it, encouraging “meaningful two-way communication” with families “in languages they can understand and access,” strengthening the pipeline for staff hiring and recruitment, and “creating clear, mandated pathways for professional learning opportunities regarding racial equity with a special focus on cultural competence.”
“Many of these recommendations are not coming from us. They’re things we heard in surveys, in focus groups, so these are things that people are calling for,” MAEC Senior Education Equity Specialist Jenny Portillo said.
In response, MCPS officials told the board they were developing an action plan and expected to have a draft that would be based on input from students, staff and families by January, with a final draft to be delivered by March. More immediate steps to be taken include mandated training for district and school leaders “specifically designed to target coherence, accountability, and equity-centered capacity building,” according to Anthony Alston, director of the district’s Equity Initiatives Unit.
The report “gets at the first step that MCPS has taken, which is we’re going to self-evaluate without being directed to do so because we recognize our own inconsistencies and lack of accountability,” MCPS Superintendent Monifa McKnight said. “We own this issue, we are going to be transparent and understand and say what we are not doing, but we are going to need the help of everybody in this room and every other family in this county to help us address it.”
The district commissioned the audit in 2020 to delve into longstanding issues of racial and ethnic disparities and achievement gaps throughout the school district. Over the years, MCPS has conducted numerous studies, provided training in equity and cultural competencies and launched initiatives to deal with the issues, including its “All In: Equity and Achievement Framework,” adopted in 2019.
MCPS officials noted that the audit report was different from other studies undertaken by the district because it delves into the reasons that such issues continue to exist, such as the inconsistency and lack of coherence in implementation of practices and policies. McKnight pointed out that the district’s size – with 210 schools, a student population of 161,000 students, and a full-time and part-time staff of nearly 30,000 employees – is “one of the biggest barriers” to achieving “coherence and accountability and consistency.”
“This is not a factory in which we are creating a product. These are personal experiences we are having with individuals every single day that are really impactful, so that means having to do the work of changing the hearts and the minds and the priorities of all the people who sit between us and all the people in this room and the child who is sitting in the school right now,” she said. “And what makes that even more difficult is when you’re dealing with an infrastructure that doesn’t take into account the diversity, the language, the culture — all of those things that we’re talking about.”
Before the audit report was presented, the board heard testimony from several Latino parents whose families’ experiences with the school system amplified the audit’s conclusions. Dozen of parents attended the session, their appearance organized by the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence, which advocates on behalf of Black and brown and low-income students in Montgomery County.
Speaking Spanish that was later translated, the parents spoke of a lack of access to information about higher education for their children as well as to academic opportunities, MCPS school organizations and sports. Language communication issues with their schools are also a big concern, said the parents, who said they were coalition members.
After listening to the testimony, board member Karla Silvestre noted she got involved with MCPS 15 years ago because of issues with translation and communication for Latino families.
“Every time the Spanish-speaking community comes to testify, overwhelmingly this is what we hear: an inability to communicate with our schools, our teachers, our administration. You cannot be the partners we want them to be if you cannot communicate,” she said. “So when I hear accountability and trust and is anything really gonna happen, this is a great example. We’ve been hearing this for 15 years: What is going to happen next? … So this is just one example of the high expectations that we all have for this work and we’re gonna hold ourselves accountable because our community and our schools deserve it.”
The audit evaluated the school system through the lens of six “domains”: school culture, workforce diversity, work conditions, pre-K–12 curriculum, community relations and engagement, and equity of access. A steering committee of 43 members — including students, family members, staff, administrators, and community organization members – worked with MAEC on the audit.
MAEC staff reviewed previous MCPS studies and data regarding racial equity, met with focus and community groups, and conducted surveys of the school community, among other measures, officials said. In all, the auditors engaged with more than 130,000 stakeholders, which including receiving 126,000 survey responses, MAEC Vice President Karmen Rouland said.
MAEC found that while MCPS is explicit about creating a welcoming culture and a high number of students agreed that their schools had positive cultures, a significant number of students of color disagreed.
School board member Scott Joftus wanted to know how MAEC’s recommendations for transforming the district’s approach to achieving racial equity would encompass what the district is doing and not add another layer to existing initiatives and more work for teachers and administrators.
MAEC officials said the audit’s recommendations were conceived with the district’s strategic plan in mind and with the aim to be incorporated in its upcoming action plan. “We’re trying to push against the baby steps that don’t feel very impactful. We tried to offer the recommendations that would give you the most bang for your buck,” Portillo said.
Joftus said he hopes the district will focus on some select areas, then measure its performance and work with school communities to make sure the change is meaningful before expanding on that work. “We need to identify three to five things and really work to move the needle and not thinking that we can defeat racism in the next year or two,” he said.
When Silvestre asked for more guidance in what areas the district should focus on first, Kasia Razynska, MAEC’s director of evaluation and continuous improvement, said making sure that students felt safe should be a priority. She noted that students, parents and staff reported incidents of bullying and racial harassment.
“Until you feel safe, you’re not going to be learning,” she said. “Things that focus on the safety of students would be a really good place to start.”
Board member Lynne Harris asked the MAEC officials whether there were other school districts that MCPS could look to for strategies for improving racial equity.
Razynska said the district had an “amazing opportunity” to lead the way on such work, noting the level of the school community’s engagement during the audit. For example, MAEC had anticipated receiving just 10,000 responses to its surveys and instead received 126,000, she said.
“Everyone was engaged in this,” she told the board. “You are the pioneers of this work nationally now, so you can’t look at anybody else. You’re writing the book on this.”