Image by Pasco County Schools licensed under Creative Commons.

Montgomery County Public Schools have consistently ranked among the best in the country and are growing like crazy, their own data shows, but a great divide exists between schools in wealthy areas and schools in less wealthy ones.

Instead of adding more classrooms to elementary schools that already have huge grade sizes and a dearth of resources, there's evidence to suggest that adjusting Montgomery County's school district boundaries could help address this issue.

As a parent of an MCPS kindergartner, a recent article about arguments over school boundaries piqued my interest in looking into some MCPS data. I found a correlation between MCPS schools with large grade sizes (not class sizes per se), high poverty rates, and lower achievement.

Now MCPS is planning to construct more classrooms at these schools that already don't have enough resources, instead of making small boundary changes to allow less-populated schools to absorb new students. Even if class sizes remain small, massive grade sizes mean poorer students have less access to shared amenities like libraries, music, recess, and art areas.

Image by MCPS.

Schools with less wealth tend to be bigger, don't have enough resources, and have lower test scores

Much of the research on school outcomes is focused on closing the school achievement gap for different races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups. But upon reviewing some of this data, I started to notice another interesting divide between school and grade sizes. This will be a lot to digest, but the chart below will help explain.

MCPS has 133 elementary schools and a stated policy for a preferred range of enrollment of 450-750 students per school (pg. 3), which translates to a preferred enrollment of 75-125 students per grade for a normal K-5 school which has six grades (MCPS also has 13 elementary schools with only three to four grades, 11 of which have more than 125 students per grade).

There are currently 28 elementary schools with more than 125 students per grade and 26 elementary schools with fewer than 75 students per grade. This policy provides an interesting line to draw some comparisons.

Chart from author based on MCPS data.  Click for data.

73% of elementary schools with fewer than 75 students per grade were rated 7/10 or higher by Great Schools, a well-known website that provides troves of testing data to nervous parents who are either buying a house or figuring out where to send their kids to school. This same group of schools also had an average poverty rate of 24%, as measured by the number of students getting free or reduced meals — known in educational circles as the “FARMs” rate.

Meanwhile, in elementary schools with more than 125 students per grade, 3% of them were rated at least 7/10 or higher by Great Schools. This group of schools had an average poverty rate of 49% as measured by the FARMs rate.

(Parent pro tip: test scores are an important metric, but don’t rely solely on them. Here’s some advice on how to choose a school.)

The MCPS Capital Improvements Program pushes growth onto schools without enough resources

MCPS recently put forward its 2019 fiscal year capital budget and its fiscal year 2019-2024 Capital Improvements Program (CIP). The CIP includes “current and projected school enrollments and capacities, and an assessment of space availability at all schools.” It also includes loads of information about the recommended capital projects and current school demographics.

Upon reviewing the CIP, I noticed of the 28 MCPS elementary schools with more than 125 students per grade, 10 of them are planned to receive construction additions. Of the 26 MCPS schools with fewer than 75 students per grade, only four of them are planned to receive construction additions. There are 14 other elementary schools that are planned to receive construction additions, bringing the total to 28 elementary schools slated for expansion.

According to MPCS’s data, the elementary schools have a current deficit of 3,602 spaces, yet at least 34 elementary schools are currently underutilized by at least 50 spaces and up to as many as 192 spaces. So to me, the basic problem is that schools that are above capacity keep growing, while under-enrolled schools are not. This recent map release by MCPS illustrates the point:

Image by MCPS.

On this map, you can see how there are a number of cases where over-utilized schools are directly adjacent to under-utilized ones. These may be ripe opportunities to tweak boundaries.

All of this data made me wonder if MCPS considered shifting the school boundaries for schools that regularly exceed the policy threshold of 125 students per grade. This seems like a more logical solution for a spike in enrollment, rather than expending scarce taxpayer resources to build more classrooms at schools that are already over the upper limit of the MCPS-preferred range.

Also, let’s not forget the huge disruption that school construction causes for students and families. Some kids spent the better part of a year in portable classrooms or bus to other schools up to 30 miles away, adding an extra hour or two to their already-busy school days.

School boundaries are another form of gerrymandering

The internet abounds with stories about how our public schools are becoming more segregated. While we may never return the Jim Crow era of “separate but equal” on paper, in practice schools are more segregated today than they were in the late 1960s. Journalists and education policy wonks across the spectrum are sounding the alarm. MacArthur Genius recipient and investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has spent years demonstrating that “schools are segregated because white people want them that way.”

There are numerous examples of white and/or wealthy parents and local governments working diligently to preserve the status quo by altering or refusing to change their school boundaries, including in neighboring DC and Virginia. Even in so-called progressive Montgomery County, data shows that our high schools are de facto segregated.

Percentage of students on FARMS versus percentage of white students in MCPS high schools. Image by Dan Reed licensed under Creative Commons.

A closer look at the MCPS school boundaries resemble a recent Congressional election map for Pennsylvania that was so gerrymandered that it required a court to redraw it.

MCPS “clusters” are the high schools’ boundary areas. The Northeast and Downcounty Consortiums are a group of high schools where parents can apply to send their kids to out-of-boundary high schools that are located in the consortium. As GGWash contributor Dan Reed has written, the consortium was designed to close the achievement gap but neither improved academic performance nor provided socioeconomic and racial balance.

Image by MCPS.

Buying a house is a huge financial investment, and many parents in Montgomery County will freely admit they chose where to buy a house based on its MCPS cluster. MCPS leaders are no doubt aware of the deluge of parents, Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs), and other groups that would oppose any change to the status quo.

However, Montgomery County leaders’ decisions to spend vast sums of money to keep expanding schools that are already above capacity while refusing to consider minor changes to boundary lines only further cements the current state of school gerrymandering.

Class size isn’t the only metric that matters

Nervous parents are told nowadays that elementary schools with small class sizes are important because teachers can give students more individualized instruction. MCPS has made efforts to decrease the average elementary class size at all of its schools, especially those with high levels of poverty.

But as any parent of a school-aged kid knows, there are lots of other learning activities happening in school that occur outside the classroom, and this is where densely populated schools get the short end of the stick. For example, I spoke with a representative from the PTA for Piney Branch Elementary School, which has the most students per grade per MCPS data. Students at Piney Branch ES begin school at 9:25 am and use a shared space for lunch. Due to the number of students, they start lunch as early as 10:30 am and the last group eats lunch as late as 1:30 pm.

Students use shared spaces for specialized instruction in art, music, science and physical education. Kids share cafeterias, playgrounds, libraries, computer labs, and other spaces. As a school principal, you need to figure out how to program the use of these spaces for all of your students. That is a hard enough job for a school with 100 students per grade, but imagine what it’s like in a school with more than double that!

At my kid’s school, the staff performs an incredible balancing act to accomplish this. Nonetheless, the necessary logistics to move so many students at the same time means they get less time to actually use the shared spaces. This means students have less time for art, music, and other specialized classes, less time to eat lunch and socialize, and less time for play at recess.

Image by David Schott licensed under Creative Commons.

Montgomery County is broke, but the schools keep growing

Despite record-high property taxes and taxpayer giveaways for corporations to locate in Montgomery County, county officials recently announced that revenue estimates are much lower than expected — so low that cuts to county and MCPS budgets are required.

In requesting additional money from Montgomery County officials, the Board of Education said “we are confronted by the need to be both fiscally prudent with the affordability guidelines that the County Council has established and attentive to the significant facility capacity and infrastructure needs that MCPS is experiencing.”

I reached out to the Board of Education with questions about how MCPS views its above-capacity schools and the impact of shared space and other shared resources. MCPS responded:

“The Board of Education considers addition projects at elementary schools that have a deficit of 92 seats or more in the sixth year of the planning period. Sometimes the planned capacity is slightly larger than the 750 seats to accommodate the special programs and/or the projected enrollment at the school. If the enrollment projections indicate that the student enrollment will be higher than the preferred range of enrollment of 450-750 students, the school system may consider other options. … When reviewing school enrollment data, the school system will consider opportunities to reassign students to adjacent schools when there is space available. Currently, MCPS is experiencing overutilization at many of our schools and, unfortunately, the available capacity is not always adjacent to this overutilization.”

The MCPS representative did not address my question about whether and to what extent they consider the impact of school expansions on shared resources.

Is MCPS really trying to better allocate the imbalance between above-capacity and under-enrolled schools, when their own data shows that 3,786 seats are available at many elementary schools where capacity exceeds enrollment? These 3,786 seats also happen to be available at schools where the average number of students per grade is 93, which is within the MCPS-preferred range.

Large schools can mean students have less time to spend on extra curriculars like the arts. Image by US Department of Education.

I sympathize with MCPS leaders and planners who have to face these challenges, but I also think it is unfair to keep adding capacity to schools that are already above capacity to the point that students’ access to shared resources is limited. Such a scenario impacts all kids’ learning, but has a deeper impact on kids in poverty.

Remember, we need space for 3,602 more students, and at least 34 elementary schools are currently underutilized by at least 50 spaces and up to as many as 192 spaces. It’s time that MCPS officials have an honest conversation with PTAs, parents, and other stakeholders about the stark choices we face. More school construction costs a lot of money. If MCPS can handle an increase in capacity through simple adjustments to the current boundary lines, then why not at least consider this alternative?

Either way, in a time of fiscal challenge and increased enrollment, MCPS must look to do things differently or it will fail its most vulnerable students and lose its status as one of the best schools systems in Maryland and the United States.