Blair can't afford another year of déjà vu--but we're about to have to.
For the sixth year running, MCPS has failed to bring our dangerously overcrowded school down to size. Even as the Downcounty Consortium (DCC) gets underway with the opening of a renovated Northwood, Blair's enrollment this year still stands at 3,323 as of Sept. 30, according to Assistant Principal Linda Wanner. Next year promises little relief: More will come; they do every fall. If you think it's bad now though, get used to it-because we have no idea when, if ever, it's going to stop.
MCPS' response to Blair's situation is perfectly infuriating: "We've got to find out: Where is the cap going to be? How far can we go? How far is reasonable?" Community Superintendent Stephen Bedford questions when asked about Blair's future population. "We're never going to get Blair down to a school of 2,000," he adds, apparently implying that Blair's desire to have fewer students is unreasonable.
But what is our cap, if not already established at 2,831? And Bedford, by occupation, is Blair's community advocate-why isn't he pushing for our numbers to go down, instead of asking how far we can still go up before caving in?
Each year, MCPS promises our population climb is going to stop. "Next year, Blair will definitely be lower," assured MCPS Senior Planner Bruce Crispell two weeks ago, adding half-jokingly, "I swear it will, I swear!" Yet isn't that what MCPS vowed last year and the year before as well? "This should be the worst year for Blair," Crispell offered when interviewed on Sept. 8, 2003. Wrong. Blair's enrollment "will drop each year 'til [2007-2008] as grades phase out of its attendance area," he added then. Wrong again. Referring to promises made in 2002 that Blair would see relief in 2003, Crispell claimed, "That might have been a misquote."
It is empty promises like these that make it difficult for the Blair community to have faith in MCPS-and why should we? The school opened its doors near-capacity at 2,755 in 1998, and our population has grown consistently since then. Yet, MCPS still treats us like a school of 2,000-which, as Bedford reminds us, we are not and will never be.
Blair is allotted the same resources as schools half its size: Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC)'s student body of 1,608 could fold twice into Blair's halls, yet both Blair and B-CC have one registrar and one Business Manager each. For Blair, that's twice as much pressure on the same limited resources. Blair is also put at an immediate disadvantage by the per-student allocations that do not account for students who need special services: special education, social workers, special language services. Put simply, Blair is capped for resources, which MCPS does not distribute proportional to size or need.
To mitigate the negative effects built up from six years of overcrowding, Blair needs additional support, like a monetary backbone for the strained custodial and security staffs patrolling Blair's 18 exits and almost 3,400 students. Such support won't solve all our problems, but it's a good start-and a better one than MCPS has shown so far.
The DCC is no solution
To appease the Blair community, MCPS has given us the DCC. But, MCPS should know that the DCC is neither a solution now nor for the long-term future.
The "phasing in" effect of the DCC guarantees that relief will come too late for all of Blair's current students: MCPS reports that Blair's population will not level off until this year's freshman class graduates, by which time no current Blair students will be here to reap the benefits.
At present, the DCC has also compromised its own effectiveness. Sold to the Blair community because it promised to bring Blair's numbers down, the DCC declared that reducing Blair's population would be its top priority. However, unbeknownst to the Blair community, the DCC's priority was shifted from relieving Blair to granting all students their top-choice high school in the Consortium, according to Principal Phillip Gainous, Assistant Principal Linda Wolf and Blair Cluster Representative Ray Scannell.
DCC Coordinator Erick Lang hotly denies the swap in priorities, claiming that he worked under a cap given to him by Crispell that was sensitive to Blair's needs. But his explanation is unlikely to be true: Clearly, Crispell didn't think there was a cap, saying simply of his projections when asked, "I don't know if it is a cap; Erick Lang would really be the better person to talk this through with you." Also, assuming this cap even existed (as Crispell's projection of 3,250), its goal was not met.
To ensure that Blair's needs are not shelved again in the future, the DCC as well as MCPS must make several improvements. Beginning next year, Lang's office must create and enforce a ceiling of 200 fewer students than were admitted to Blair the year before. For now, they must allow immediate transfers from the 600-student-overcapacity Blair to the 100-student-underenrolled Northwood, an idea that Lang vetoed, recalls Scannell. At the same time, the DCC should increase visibility of Northwood and other DCC high schools and support a full-scale renovation for Northwood that would dramatically enhance its appeal, thereby attracting more students away from Blair.
These issues must be addressed immediately, and Montgomery County needs to reexamine the underlying issue of why Blair is so overcrowded in the first place: When MCPS redrew boundary lines ten years ago, discrimination against Blair's heavily minority population caused MCPS to give Blair a student surplus. A redistricting proposal that would have provided relief by adding more minority students to schools like B-CC drew "embarrassing and ugly" reactions from members of predominantly-white communities, says Gainous. Essentially, no one wanted low-achieving black, Hispanic, ESOL or Free and Reduced Meal (FARM) students-so they were all given to Blair.
In this vein, the DCC was born. The DCC, an institutional walling-off of red-zone schools (defined as those needing increased resource allocations) that are sunk into problems the rest of the County would rather not touch, excluded all green-zone schools like the predominantly-white and also overcapacity B-CC, located only six miles from Blair and a school that could have benefited from overcrowding relief itself. It is no coincidence that of the handful of MCPS red-zone high schools, four are in the DCC.
"It's a system of racism," says frustrated PTSA Co-President Betsy Scroggs. "People think they're going to protect their high schools by not having poor kids go to their schools." Even 50 years after Brown vs. Board, Montgomery County schools are segregated by race and class-a segregation not only creating concentrated areas of lower-class, heavily minority and immigrant populations like the Downcounty, but also one to which Montgomery County officials are turning a blind eye.
We need to end these divisions. Only by acknowledging past mistakes and redrawing boundary lines can MCPS integrate race and class, alleviate the suffocating pressure on Blair and finally deliver on promises of relief to a powerless and frustrated Blair community.
"I think it's time," says Scroggs, and the Blair community agrees. MCPS, we need fewer students, and now: Blair's situation is dangerous and outrageous, and MCPS' responses have thus far been shamefully lacking.
Fight to lower Blair's numbers: Call MCPS Superintendent of Schools Jerry Weast at (301) 279-3381 ext. 3106 or the Board of Education at (301) 279-3617 to take a stand.
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