Group's solutions would fail to solve problems
In January, a group of black parents called the African-American Parents of Magnet School Applicants (AAPMSA) began researching the application process to the Takoma Park, Eastern and Roberto Clemente Middle School Magnet programs. After meeting with various members of MCPS, AAPMSA sent a memorandum to the Board of Education on March 2 requesting that the Board suspend the Magnet application process because too few blacks were being admitted to the programs.
While the AAPMSA is correct in its assertion that MCPS Magnets are not nearly as diversified as they should be, everything the group has done since January can only be classified as ludicrous. From focusing on the wrong end of the problem to attempting to dilute the quality of Magnet programs to making slanderous statements about Montgomery County teachers, the AAPMSA has systematically destroyed its own agenda.
Wrong place, wrong time
The AAPMSA is using flawed reasoning because it attacks the problem once it has fully manifested itself. It's like trying to cut down a tree by chopping off branches. The AAPMSA should instead attempt to fix the problem at the root: elementary schools. Board of Education member Valerie Ervin, who agrees that there is a significant problem with diversity in the Magnet programs, said that students must be exposed to higher levels of education as early as possible. "We have to look at kids coming into the school system starting at [age] five," she said.
Thomas Broadwater, one of three volunteer coordinators for the AAPMSA, recognized this fact and even admitted that it shares some of the blame in the low acceptances of black students to Magnet schools. He said that of the 2200 black students who pass through MCPS second grade each year, 1700 are relegated to the slower-moving classes, and cited this as an aspect that needs to be resolved. In spite of this knowledge, he and the AAPMSA did not and have not given up their efforts to block the Magnet application process.
While they addressed the problem in elementary schools in a March 23 speech before the Board, they have remained fixated on promoting diversity in middle school Magnets.
MCPS has already started the transition into a less rigid, more flexible program by allowing any student to participate in any class regardless of their current track. This year's fifth grade class was the first to fully experience the revised elementary school curriculum, which allowed all students to participate in accelerated classes regardless of whatever track they are in. The only requirement is that the student demonstrates the proper work ethic. Such changes will help diversify the Magnet programs without sacrificing student quality, and the AAPMSA would be better served focusing their attention on this phase of education.
Not only is the AAPMSA focusing on the wrong area of education, but its request that the applications be suspended reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the reason and goal of Magnet programs. If MCPS followed the AAPMSA's suggestion, students entering Magnets would not be the top 100 students because race would be included as a factor instead of academic criteria.
On the surface, it would seem that this is a classic affirmative action debate. This issue, however, cannot be extrapolated that way because Magnets exist solely to cultivate the gifts of already gifted and similarly motivated students. "The mission of the Magnet is to make an environment for advanced students," said Natasha Coleman, the only black junior in the Blair Magnet. "Those kids are the best of the best. I absolutely agree that there should be more diversity, but the fact is that a lot of black students aren't ready for the Magnet."
Currently, the applications are race-blind and include the following factors: teacher recommendations, grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, application essays, student motivation, participation in Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS), geographical location and participation in the ESOL program. According to MCPS Director of Enriched and Innovative Instruction Virginia Tucker, none of these criteria are weighted and they are designed to measure only a student's current abilities and potential.
The final problem with the AAPMSA's endeavors is that they have made a number of statements that are either untrue or unsubstantiated. For example, Broadwater said that a number of administrators informed him that the single most important criterion in considering an applicant is the teacher recommendation. However, there is absolutely no weighting of criteria when selecting students, according to Tucker.
Broadwater also said that the selection committees are predominantly white and Asian, which he said works to the disadvantage of black applicants. But, according to Associate Superintendent Dale Fulton, the committees are organized to reflect as many ethnic backgrounds as possible, including white, black, Asian and Hispanic members.
Tucker added that there are various other criteria for participating in selection committees, including having at least one member who participated in special education as a child.
Another disparity between the County's claims and Broadwater's regards the role that extracurriculars play in the application process. Broadwater said that private clubs, such as the Continental Math Team and the National Science League, tip the scales in favor of whites and Asians whose parents can sponsor such clubs.
But Tucker said that extracurriculars are just one component of various criteria, and that strong performance in other areas can offset weak extracurriculars. In addition, the FARMS information allows the selection committee to make allowances for applicants lower on the socioeconomic ladder specifically so the complaints that Broadwater and the AAPMSA are raising can be resolved, said Tucker
Broadwater also said that many elementary school teachers are racist. "We think there is a significant problem with teacher bias," he said. "The 1700 students who are designated to lower-level classes have a lower chance to develop the acumen to compete at the higher levels. We believe that they were artificially steered toward lower classes. There is institutionalized racism. Our kids are literally walking into a hostile environment."
However, Magnet math teacher Eric Walstein pointed out that such logic is merely an excuse. "Turning around and calling everybody racist doesn't solve anything," he said.
Walstein is exactly right. While it is true that there are probably some teachers with inherent biases, Broadwater cannot tar the majority of teachers in MCPS with the brush of racism. It is not only an uncorroborated statement that stems simply from Broadwater's observations, but it is also an offensive one that can only serve to alienate the AAPMSA from MCPS. He did acknowledge that there are "some" teachers who are not swayed by prejudice, but he also implied that this isn't the case for most MCPS employees.
If the AAPMSA is serious about improving the socioeconomic status of blacks in MCPS and diversifying Magnet programs, it should cease dabbling in the problem at the middle school level. If the group focuses where the problem starts, it will make far more progress.
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