Lynne Harris is one of the two final candidates for the At-Large seat on the Montgomery County Board of Education in the November 2020 election.
I’ve spent the past 12 years immersed in Montgomery County Public Schools, starting in 2008 when my son started kindergarten. I went to my first PTA meeting, raised my hand to volunteer for something, and then kept raising my hand. Taking on more volunteer roles, leading the PTA, stepping up to work as a leader of the countywide PTA (the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, or MCCPTA)—those things together provided many opportunities to study issues, listen, learn from leaders, and connect with communities.
Participating in more meetings, work groups, task forces, focus groups, interview panels, selection committees, events, panels, town halls and assemblies than I can count was a graduate course in MCPS. Becoming a teacher in 2016 (Medical Science with Clinical Applications as part of the Career and Technology Education (CTE) program at Thomas Edison) provided me with additional insights into the workings of our school system—allowing me to see things not just through the lens of a parent and advocate, but also from the perspective of someone in the teaching trenches every day.
It has been an invaluable education. I have learned about the array of issues affecting our students and schools is vast and constantly evolving. Staying current is constant work. I’ve learned that every one of our 208 schools is different from every other—and different from itself year to year.
I’ve learned that MCPS needs to be more intentional about engaging the unique talents and innovative ideas of teachers and not burden them with administrative tasks that don’t directly impact our ability to be good educators and connect with our students. I’ve learned that every one of our school communities is a rich and diverse pool of talent, expertise, and knowledge that too often MCPS just doesn’t substantively engage—in either the policy-making or problem-solving process—and that is a huge missed opportunity.
But the most important thing I’ve learned is that our students are THE best barometer for how MCPS is doing as a school system. Our students are the deepest well of knowledge about every aspect of our schools and any issue we face. If we want to make MCPS the best it can be, we have to make partnering with students simply the way we do business.
The daily lived experience of our students in our schools should inform every decision we make for pragmatic reasons—because students know things that no one else knows. But perhaps more importantly, it’s essential that we routinely engage students to work with us to improve our schools because they have become, unequivocally, the moral compass of MCPS.
MCPS has had “equity” as a core value for many years. Board Policy FAA, Educational Facilities Planning, specifies the process by which the Board makes decisions about an array of facility utilization issues, including the selection of new school sites, boundary changes, school closures, and consolidations. The policy has existed since 1986, been revised several times, and has included requiring the consideration of four co-equal factors (student demographics, geographic proximity, stability of school assignments over time, facility utilization) in making these types of decisions at least since the 1990s.
Policy FAA has for decades included creating a “diverse student body” as one of four co-equal factors to be considered when establishing school boundaries or determining where to build or expand schools. Yet—in 2020—the racial, cultural, and socioeconomic composition of individual schools is highly variable, and there are deep inequities in our system.
In the 18th wealthiest county in the nation, we have schools in which less than one percent of students are impacted by poverty and schools in which almost 90 percent are. We are a majority-minority school system—32.4 percent Latinx, 27 percent white, 21.4 percent Black, 14.1 percent Asian—but the demographics of most schools are far from reflective of that reality. Eighty-two percent of students arrested in schools, or on school property, are students of color. We are a diverse school system, but we are NOT a system of diverse schools. We proclaim equity as a core value, but we are NOT an equitable school system.
Students all across MCPS have called out these inequities clearly, substantively and courageously. MCPS has benefited from an uninterrupted series of Student Members of the Board of Education (SMOBs) (Eric Guerci, Matthew Post, Ananya Tadikonda, Nathaniel Tinbite) standing up and calling for MCPS to do and be better. Without this strong, clear student voice, MCPS would not have authorized a county-wide boundary analysis. MCPS would not have embarked on a systemwide anti-racist audit. The BOE would not have passed a resolution calling for a detailed review of the data surrounding our School Resource Officer program.
To me, it’s obvious that tackling the work required to transform MCPS into a world-class, anti-racist, school system requires students at every decision-making table. We need to partner with them now to create a plan to make that a reality.