The Language of Equity and Excellence
By Patricia O’Neill
Chair— Policy Management Committee, Montgomery County Board of Education
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has a longstanding commitment to the principles of equity and excellence in education. These principles are embedded in our school system’s mission and are expected to permeate all aspects of our work—from our board room to the classroom. That is why the Board of Education has recently taken important steps to change enrollment procedures in our foreign language immersion programs—to ensure these principles are met.
The elementary language immersion programs MCPS currently offers are highly sought-after experiences for many families. Research shows, and parents know, that learning another language at a young age allows students to attain higher/more advanced levels of proficiency; improve cognitive abilities; and score higher on achievement tests. Currently, MCPS offers Spanish immersion at three schools, Chinese immersion at two schools, and French immersion at two schools. These seven programs only have the staff and budget capacity to enroll roughly 290 kindergarten students each year from across the county. This represents less than 2.6 percent of all incoming kindergarteners. Currently, enrollment in the program is managed by a modified lottery process that was recently reviewed in a report to the Board.
In January 2015, the Board of Education commissioned a study of the choice and other special academic programs that MCPS offers, including the elementary school language immersion programs. The goal of the study was to determine if these programs effectively advance the MCPS mission, purpose, values and core competencies. In the analysis of the program, which was presented to the Board last March, the study authors concluded that the program yields excellence but raised questions about equity. The study found that the demographic profile of the language immersion program does not reflect the diversity of the MCPS student population. A majority of the applicants and enrollees were white, non-Free and Reduced Priced Meal (FARMS) recipients. The study also indicated that the sibling link—an exception to the lottery process that allows younger siblings of students currently enrolled in the immersion program to be automatically accepted without participating in the lottery—reduces the number of available seats, thus potentially hindering equitable access to the program for historically underrepresented communities.
To address issues of equity in the immersion programs, MCPS and the Board of Education are taking three key steps. First, Superintendent Jack Smith has proposed expanding elementary language programs to an additional four schools as part of his recommended Fiscal Year 2018 Operating Budget. The proposed programs would be two-way immersion programs. These programs, which would unite native English speakers with students who are native speakers of the partner language, promote bilingualism and biliteracy, high academic achievement and multicultural competency. These programs would build on the strength of our community and the inherent gifts of a diverse, multilingual and multicultural population.
Second, the Board of Education tentatively approved changes to Board Policy JEE, Student Transfers, which governs the process for how students move throughout the county via change of school assignments or transfers. The revisions would establish a weighted lottery for immersion programs that would include as factors: students who have an older sibling currently enrolled in a language immersion program and will continue to be enrolled in the year the younger sibling seeks to enroll; socioeconomic status and poverty; and other factors as identified by the superintendent, such as, in specific circumstances, the area from which a school’s students are drawn. The Board is accepting comments on these proposed changes until Feb. 3. I believe these factors, together, will guide the program to reflect the diversity of our school district while also acknowledging the benefits that stem from siblings learning and speaking the same language.
The revised lottery would apply to students seeking to enroll in these programs for the 2018-2019 school year. This change would not impact families with students enrolled in the immersion program during the 2017-2018 school year. Any family who has a child enrolled in a language immersion program, in any grade, during the 2017-2018 school year will be able to enroll all younger siblings of that child in the same language immersion program, as long as there will be at least one older sibling enrolled the same year as the younger sibling.
Finally, to ensure that a greater number of incoming families are aware of the immersion program opportunities the district provides, MCPS will engage in a robust outreach campaign that will include a special emphasis on communities that have been historically underrepresented in the immersion program application process.
Excellence and equity are cornerstones in our education philosophy. It is our responsibility to ensure that the two are mutually reinforcing and are evident in everything that we do for our students. I am confident that the increased opportunities and outreach, paired with the change in policy, will help us strengthen our language immersion programs and fulfill our commitment to excellence and equity in our schools.