Montgomery County Public Schools. (Courtesy Photo)

ROCKVILLE – After a rocky spring season dominated by criticisms and the cleaning up of perceptions after a Damascus High School hazing incident, students and staff entered their 2019-2020 school year in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) with a seemingly more attentive ear from its administration.

Damascus High School, under legal scrutiny after an alleged first-degree rape in 2018, had MCPS subpoenaed by the county’s state’s attorney as part of an investigation into its student-athlete hazing culture. It later culminated in the purging of the entire junior varsity football staff, including Athletic Director Joe Doody and Head Coach Vincent Colbert.

The school’s principal, Casey Crouse, also resigned.

“The focus inside the school during the school day has never wavered (despite negative media attention),” Crouse wrote at the time. “However, it has become clear that for Damascus High School to move forward, it will require new school leadership.”

The incident brought about the introduction of the MCPS Athletics Supervision Action Plan in the 2019-2020 school year, outlining how coaches and staff should be in constant supervision of student-athletes before, during and after practice.

Damascus was not the only point of criticism for MCPS in 2019. Criticism of substitute teacher hiring requirements motivated the administration to lower its educational requirements, down from a bachelor’s degree to an associate degree, or 60 credits.

School boundary lines have also been addressed earlier this year, with students and teachers having outlined their concerns over MCPS schools being segregated at a board of education hearing in March. It led to MCPS hiring a consultant in September to draw up recommendations for new boundaries for school districts.

MCPS has seen lighter news through the summer and the entering of the 2020-2021 school year, with MCPS staff even receiving honors for their work. Madeline Hanington of Hallie Wells Middle School won the 2019 MCPS Teacher of the Year award in May, and went on to be the county’s nominee for State Teacher of the Year. Dr. Joey Jones, principal of Robert E. Frost Middle School, was also a finalist for this year’s National Principal of the Year award.

“Every child is different, so it’s my job to get to know every child, every student,” Hanington said. “And that’s my job. If I don’t do that, then they’re not safe.”

For students, concerns for safety dwelled primarily in national and state policies on climate change. During the Sept. 20 climate strike, MCPS students walked out of schools and were escorted by police as they marched to Washington, D.C., to participate in the global movement.

The walk-out prompted County Executive Marc Elrich to write a letter to the superintendent and Board of Education to excuse students who leave for the protest.

“I didn’t see one person counter-protest against climate change, and why would you? It’s a scientific fact,” Isabel Serrano of Northwood High School said after returning from Washington, D.C. “I hope this is the last time I skip school for this. I shouldn’t have to be doing this, but I have to.”

In or out of school, students continue to do well for themselves, showing their success in numbers. The year 2019 has seen increased participation in standardized testing in high schools.

Reports showed that 75.6% of students took the SAT, showing an upward trend from earlier years. This is especially true for Black and Hispanic students, where participation went up by 11.4 and 17.8 percentage points, respectively. And while scores have dropped, they reflect a national trend overall.

“Our collective work of engaging students in rigorous coursework and pathways is key to their success, and we must continue to examine our efforts to ensure all students can participate, make progress and perform at the highest levels,” Superintendent Jack Smith said in a statement.

Remaining questions on how to improve schools in the process of getting funding approved for the 2021 fiscal year remain. However, Smith and his staff are hoping to continue educational and budgeting trends from this year in their recommended $2.8 billion budget.

Concerns have revolved around how teachers are getting older, and could retire and shrink the available workforce in the county.

Smith will also see resignations in his own administration next year, prompting more focus on hiring at all levels of the school system. To do so, he has asked to renew his contract for four more years.

The problem in staffing revolves around the growing student population, which is expected to only get more prominent in the following years.

About half of MCPS is currently overcapacity. That is especially true for high schools, who have, on average, 2,000 students per school. More than 1,000 new students enrolled in August alone, with a majority of them being international students.

It’s prompted more funding in ESOL and other language programs.

Included in the budget is funding for at least 250 teachers and 100 instructional aides and assistants. In comparison, only 59 teachers were hired at the start of the 2019-2020 school year; and just as parents face concerns over student segregation, diversity in the workforce has also been vital for the superintendent and his staff.

“This has been a decades-old conversation about equity,” Byron Johns, chair of the NAACP Parents Council of Montgomery County, said. “I feel hopeful that we have the elements now for really meaningful progress to be made through this budget and subsequent budgets.”

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