Workshops for magnets held

Dec. 15, 2005, midnight | By Jason Meer | 15 years, 2 months ago

Event aids students with application process

Two Magnet application workshops were held last month as part of an ongoing effort by MCPS to increase diversity in the county's Magnet programs.

The sessions, held at White Oak and Gaithersburg, gave parents and students the opportunity to hear an overview of the application process and to speak with MCPS staff.

Melanie Bachrach, an instructional specialist at the MCPS Division of Consortia Choice and Application Program Services, led the meetings, explaining the proper procedures for answering application questions. "We weren't talking about how to get into the programs, but we did provide helpful information on the applications," she said. Applications covered in the workshops included those for Center Programs for the Highly Gifted at elementary schools, middle-school magnets at Eastern, Takoma Park and Roberto Clemente, the International Baccalaureate Program at Richard Montgomery and Blair's magnet.

According to Blair Magnet coordinator Eileen Steinkraus, who attended a meeting, many of the attendees were newly immigrated parents who had little knowledge of the options offered to gifted students. "We've done a lot more outreach to those parents of kids new to the country and the county," she said. Translators were available for Chinese, French, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese speakers with limited English proficiency.

The workshops were co-sponsored by MCPS and the Montgomery County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Parents' Council. Crystal DeVance, a secretary at the council, approached Bachrach about advertising for this year's meetings because only 15 to 20 people attended last year. Approximately 300 individuals came to the White Oak workshop, while at least 400 turned out for the Gaithersburg meeting, according to Bachrach.

The workshops were part of a concerted effort by MCPS to promote diversity in gifted programs. The Blair Magnet partnered with Richard Montgomery's International Baccalaureate program two years ago to release a booklet that helped students unfamiliar with Magnet testing prepare for the types of questions they could expect. The Division of Accelerated and Enriched Instruction also distributed 60,000 copies of a direct mail pamphlet entitled "Options," which publicized the special programs that minority students and parents may have previously been unaware of.

As part of county efforts to integrate magnets, the middle-school programs increased diversity in their incoming classes last year by accepting 51 black students, up from 24 the previous year. This increase was in part due to a new MCPS policy allowing fifth-graders not identified as Gifted and Talented (GT) to take advanced courses, according to an April 2005 Silver Chips article.

Magnetic tension

County magnet programs have long contained a disproportionately small number of minority students, according to Martin Creel, the acting director of the MCPS Division of Accelerated and Enriched Instruction. Last January, the African American Parents of Magnet School Applicants launched an unsuccessful campaign to suspend the middle-school magnet application process because of data that showed that a lower percentage of black applicants were accepted than white or Asian applicants. The group cited that six percent of black applicants to the Takoma Park Magnet Program were accepted while 25 percent of whites were granted slots, according to a Mar. 8 article in The Washington Post.

Activist groups, including the Montgomery County Education Forum (MCEF), have also been dissatisfied with the second-grade GT designation because it promotes racial uniformity in special programs. Mark Adelman, MCEF's treasurer, said that GT testing promotes "tracking." "The way MCPS runs its programs, the lower groups don't get an equal opportunity in education," he said.

Another factor that has decreased minority enrollment in magnet programs is the prerequisite course requirement for application. According to Steinkraus, many candidates are eliminated from consideration for Blair's magnet program because they have not completed Algebra I by the end of middle school.

Middle-school blues

Of the 5,760 students in the class of 2009 who completed Algebra I before high school, 4,392 were white or Asian, while only 1,358 were black or Latino. Even though black or Latino students made up 42 percent of the MCPS student body in 2004-2005, only 24 percent of eighth graders eligible for the Magnet were black or Latino.

Exclusion from the application process based on failure to take prerequisite courses is declining because elementary and middle schools are pushing students to take harder classes in an effort to encourage kids to both attend magnet programs and take more difficult courses in the future, said Steinkraus. "Middle schools are getting kids more aware of what they need to get done so they can take advanced courses in high school," she said. For instance, last year was the first in which all MCPS elementary schools offered Math A, the first math course that middle-school students take.

Even though schools have worked to prepare students to handle the workload of special programs, some parents' lack of awareness about the application process was a major reason for the workshops. MCPS instructional specialists at the meetings discussed the steps for applying to each program.

For the Blair Magnet, criteria included an application with lists of extracurricular activities and accomplishments, a three-part test, three teacher recommendations and past report cards.

Formula for success

While the inability to apply because of failure to complete prerequisite classes is becoming less of an issue, socioeconomic diversity continues to be a concern, according to Steinkraus. To combat this trend, screening committees are examining applicants' Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS) status. This practice has improved the Blair program's diversity because poorer students were not penalized for having fewer extracurricular activities or academic awards. Board of Education member Valerie Ervin said that the Board is working on a formula that would identify potential FARMS recipients, a process that would replace the procedure in which students must submit a family income form to become eligible for FARMS. Ervin suggested that the formula could be used in placing low-income magnet applicants.

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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