ROCKVILLE – Two conflicting arguments became prominent during most of a hearing for the boundary study on a county high school, and two other high schools included in the study, on Nov. 13.
On the one hand were parents and students from Seneca Valley High School or the cluster, which recently received an addition and for which Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) conducted the study, who said they supported Superintendent Jack Smith’s recommendation, which MCPS labeled 11a.
Shelby Bidwell, vice president of the Parent Teacher Student Association (PTA) at Seneca Valley, said she supports Smith’s recommendation because the Free and Reduced Price Meals (FARMs) rate would be more evenly distributed between schools would help students be “more successful.”
“Sometimes, a compromise has to be made in order to do what is best for a majority of the students,” Bidwell said. “Every student is not going to have a perfect, ideal situation, we know that, but Dr. Smith’s recommendation gets us really close to where we wanna be.”
On the opposite side, some parents from the Clarksburg cluster said they did not support option 11a because the superintendent’s recommendation, if approved, would take student transportation farther from home which would require more time, and it would make it difficult for parents to be able to participate in PTAs or for children to participate in after-school activities.
They said that they feared that having school buses drive to and from the additional neighborhoods in the recommendation would add to the traffic, which would worsen their stressful commutes on Route 355 and interstate highway 270.
Several middle school parents and guardians in the respective clusters were among those who spoke during the hearing.
MCPS recently expanded Seneca Valley High School to relieve overcrowding at Northwest and Clarksburg High Schools, according to a Frequently Asked Questions document available online. Therefore, the study included middle schools and high schools in the Seneca Valley, Northwest and Clarksburg clusters. The boundary study report became available online within the last month, along with Smith’s recommended FY 2021 capital budget and fiscal years 2021-2026 recommended Capital Improvements Plan (CIP).
During the hearing, people from the Clarksburg cluster asked the board to consider again an option that Smith said in the boundary study report was removed from consideration in an earlier phase of the study, option 9.
They said it would provide the least hardship on parents and guardians in terms of driving to pick up their children, as well as children being on school buses for all three clusters.
One of the superintendent’s reasons for the option he recommends, option 11a, is that it would more evenly distribute the FARMs rate between schools as well as increase diversity in some schools, with the latter being a priority in a board of education policy known as Policy FAA.
Last school year, the board amended the policy, which addresses changing school boundaries, so that it included not just consideration of how best to address capacity issues but also the consideration of how to increase diversity between schools, when feasible.
In MCPS-administered surveys, which were part of the completed boundary study, Seneca Valley cluster parents and guardians said they supported considering increasing diversity between schools as a factor in the boundary decision.
Meanwhile, many parents and community members in the current Clarksburg High School cluster indicated in the surveys that they valued geography highly in choosing boundary changes, more than the number of responders who said they valued increasing diversity.
The Rev. Karrie Thomas, a pastor as well as an elementary school parent, said she did not appreciate Clarksburg parents and students apparently being labeled by someone in Seneca Valley cluster as not supporting diversity, based on their survey responses. Thomas described the labels as a “harmful and inaccurate” characterization. Residents in the cluster do value diversity, Thomas said, adding that the traffic would be a challenging burden for students’ families.
As to the superintendent’s recommendation, a couple of commenters said in their testimonies during the hearing that redistributing the FARMs rate did not imply that the adverse effects of poverty on students would lessen and that it did not help the issue of the achievement gap.
One person who did not support the proposed FARMs changes was Clarksburg cluster parent Vyjayanthi Krishnan. Krishnan said that if the FARMs rate at some schools were to be reduced, they would no longer be eligible for proposed special funding recommended by the Kirwan Commission, a group of legislators, education advocates and business leaders who advocate for education funding in Annapolis. Krishnan said she supported option 12 because it would have the least geographic distance to travel for each cluster.
“The Kirwan Commission … also does not advocate changing FARMs rate,” Krishnan said. “Their guidance is to put more resources to high poverty schools, incentivize teachers to remain (and teach) at high-poverty schools, increase health services in community-based services other community support in the schools.”
Then, some commenters opposed to the idea of assigning students to help distribute FARMs rates went on to ask the board to consider hiring teachers, counselors, English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers and ESOL counselors instead.
Comments were not limited to high school students or the parents of secondary school children, however. The primary school parents also showed up to testify, although Smith included no elementary schools in the study and the board is not considering elementary school boundary changes. Elementary school parents said they were commenting because Smith’s decision would still affect their children once they became middle school students. Kerrin Torres-Meriwether, Clarksburg Elementary School parent and PTA board member, said her PTA supports option 9. She said that others in the cluster are concerned about the driving distance to the would-be new school assignments under Smith’s recommendation.
“Parents from our community have shared stories and experiences of traveling in and out of Clarksburg on 270, 355, and Clarksburg Road and we urge this board to strongly consider the lack of public transportation and insufficient road infrastructures,” Torres Meriwether said.
“It was determined at two community meetings after the superintendent’s recommendation was released that the majority of Clarksburg Elementary School parents – based on geographic data and experience – support option No. 9,” Torres-Meriwether added.
Later this month, the board is scheduled to vote on boundary changes and to determine which grades of students will be grandfathered into their existing school assignments.