MCPS should explore economic integration

Nov. 10, 2005, midnight | By Jason Meer | 18 years, 3 months ago

North Carolina county's program closed the gap between white, minority

Since 2000, officials in Wake County, North Carolina, have limited the proportion of children below the poverty line at each public school to 40 percent. The results are unquestionable: Black students in Wake County have doubled their state test passing rates, increasing proficiency from 40 percent of students a decade ago to 80 percent last spring, according to a Sept. 25 feature in The New York Times.

The cost of this incredible success is relatively small. The program displaces only about 3,000 students a year. In Montgomery County, 43 percent of black students passed the English High School Assessment (HSA) last year, while 82 percent of white students passed, according to the MCPS web site. In a county where the racial gap in test results is widening, MCPS officials need to take note of Wake's successful integration plan and seriously consider implementing a similar program.

Wake County's policy is based on simple facts. Students from poor backgrounds have greater success when mixed with well-off classmates because wealthier teenagers are raised in environments where academics are emphasized. In a feature in The New York Times, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, was quoted as saying, "Low-income students who have an opportunity to go to middle-class schools are surrounded by peers who have bigger dreams and who are more academically engaged...They are taught by teachers who more likely are highly qualified than the teachers in low-income schools."

Flawed logic

The achievement gap in Montgomery County has been widened by the discrepancy between the programs offered at richer and poorer schools. At Thomas S. Wootton, only four percent of the student body is on the plan for free and reduced meals (FARMS), according to the MCPS website. At Wheaton, 37 percent of pupils are on FARMS. Wootton offers students the opportunity to take high-level courses at Montgomery College; Wheaton does not. This fact, in addition to the disparity between the schools' honors enrollment — 89 percent of Wootton students aspire to take honors or AP classes, while only 53 percent do the same at Wheaton, according to the MCPS website — lends credence to the argument that the county perpetuates lower standards of education for low-income pupils.

Interestingly, the poorer students who struggle the most on standardized tests come from richer schools. For instance, Blair's FARMS students outperformed FARMS students at Damascus, Sherwood and Northwest on all four HSAs, according to MCPS.

Blair's model of economic diversity, in which wealthier teenagers who participate in the Magnet and Communication Arts Program supplement a predominantly low-income community, provides an example of what needs to become the norm countywide. Last year's data shows that while some downcounty schools lack motivated, wealthy pupils who promote increased honors enrollment, upcounty schools also need a better socioeconomic balance to elevate the test scores of poorer students to the same level as those of low-income students in Blair.

Driving the change

To get low-income students to attend upcounty schools, MCPS should open these schools to transfers for all MCPS students who fall below the poverty line. Unfortunately, the students who take advantage of such a program would already be willing to leave their downcounty home schools to seek an oftentimes superior upcounty education. A voluntary transfer program would hardly encourage unmotivated students to seek a better education.

Students unwilling to voluntarily transfer for unqualified reasons must be mandatorily bused to schools where they can be surrounded by stronger academic peers. To facilitate the plan, existing downcounty bus routes could be diverted to transport kids to upcounty schools.

Wake County officials have encouraged other school districts to adopt their system, but they caution that specific conditions within their county made the integration possible. Widespread growth in the population and local economy prepared Wake citizens for such radical change.

Montgomery County has shown a six percent population increase since April 2000, as well as numerous signs of economic growth, according to the MCPS web site. Montgomery County is quite similar to Wake County — except in public school organization. If MCPS adopts an economic integration program, another prosperous American county will exhibit the benefits of economic diversity in public schools. Until then, MCPS will be preventing its low-income students from reaching their full academic potential.

Jason Meer. Jason Meer is a RISING SENIOR who needs to get more sleep. When awake, he finds time to facebook, watch SportsCenter and World Poker Tour, and listen to varied musicians from Chamillionaire to Sigur Ros to Kelly Clarkson. If you see a red-haired guy walking … More »

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