Rockville Residents Want Lower Student-Poverty Levels When Elementary School Opens Next Year

Proposed attendance map would concentrate low-income students at the new school, some groups say


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The Montgomery County school board last month heard a proposal from Superintendent Jack Smith on boundaries for a new elementary school in Rockville.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

A proposed school attendance map in Rockville is drawing opposition from community groups who say it would concentrate low-income students at a new elementary school.

Residents in New Mark Commons and the Hungerford neighborhoods have written letters, met with elected leaders and even created a hashtag pushing officials to balance these students more evenly across the elementary schools in the Richard Montgomery Cluster.

“What we’re asking is to consider how educational performance is affected by the diversity composition in schools, and what we’re really trying to think about is what’s in the students’ best interests,” said Lok Samson, who’s helping to head up the Hungerford effort.

The percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches–often known as the FARMS rate and used as a poverty measure–would drop at Beall and Twinbrook elementary schools under a plan Superintendent Jack Smith released last month. Beall, College Gardens and Ritchie Park elementary schools would have FARMS rates of 10 to 17 percent, a staff report showed.

However, Richard Montgomery #5, the elementary school now under construction at 332 W. Edmonston Drive, would have a FARMS rate of about 41.5 percent. If students attending a Chinese Immersion Program at the new school are excluded, the projected FARMS rate at Richard Montgomery #5 increases to 53 percent, according to the report.

The school is scheduled to open in September 2018.

Samson and neighbors are citing studies that suggest students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds do better if they’re in schools with poverty concentrations below a certain threshold.

New Mark Commons residents are asking board members to craft a boundary map that would aim for FARMS rates of roughly 25 percent at four of the cluster’s elementary schools: Beall, College Gardens, Ritchie Park and Richard Montgomery #5. They’ve created the hashtag #Diversify@25 to promote their effort.

“There is a sweet spot where lower- and middle-income children are able to achieve at the same rates, and the reason why the community chose 25 … is that it’s around the ideal number,” said John Daroff, president of the New Mark Commons homeowners’ association.

The mayor and council members for the city of Rockville also sent a letter asking the school board to evaluate a new attendance plan that would reduce the FARMS rate at Richard Montgomery #5.

During construction on the new school, the school system launched a boundary study process that involved community outreach and considered eight attendance map options for the area. Smith’s recommendation was different from any of the options that the boundary committee had discussed, largely because he advised increasing the opening capacity for the new school to 740. The building was originally designed with classroom space for 602 students but with the ability to hold an additional 140 through future expansion projects.

Rockville city officials and others had asked the school system to open the school with space for 740.

The superintendent's proposed boundaries for a fifth elementary school in Rockville. Credit: Montgomery County Public Schools

Montgomery County school board members are willing to consider alternatives to the superintendent’s proposal. During a work session last week, they directed staff members to prepare several options that might distribute students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches more evenly across the cluster.

However, they also took issue with the implication that schools with higher FARMS rates are lower performing. Several board members said they received troubling correspondence suggesting that people didn’t want their children attending a school with a high population of students from lower-income backgrounds.

“We are one of the highest-performing school districts in the state and in the country, and the majority of our elementary schools are over 25 percent FARMS eligible,” school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse said Thursday in a phone interview. “I don’t think people realize how much poverty we have in the county and how well we’re doing as a school district.”

During last week’s work session, Smith explained that schools with FARMS rates of about 30 percent or higher receive additional resources from the county. He resisted the notion that students from lower-income backgrounds won’t perform as highly, referencing his own childhood.

“If it’s true that if you are FARMS eligible, you cannot do as well, then I don’t get to have this job,” he said of his upbringing. “That’s what it comes down to, and I find it offensive, quite frankly.”

However, Ortman-Fouse and others said they were open to input from the community and to exploring a more balanced FARMS distribution. At the same time, officials must take into consideration other factors, including walkability, neighborhood cohesion and making the best use of each school’s capacity, she said. Samson said she agreed that board members should weigh all of these priorities when drawing the attendance lines.

The board members are scheduled to discuss the boundary options again during a Nov. 14 work session.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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