My View: We Have Failed Montgomery, Montgomery Has Not Failed Us

Late on Thursday evening, the DJUSD School Board moved forward with proposed changes that would phase out the English-only program at Marguerite Montgomery Elementary, and leave in its wake the Two-way Bilingual Immersion Program (TWBI) – which many see as a highly successful program that can help to bridge parts of the achievement gap.

For my family, this is an issue that hits close to home as our kindergartner, Jeremiah, is caught right smack in the middle – he’s in the class that would be ended for next year.  While meeting with Principal Jen McNeil, it was acknowledged that Jeremiah may be the one kid most adversely impacted by these changes.

But while at an individual level that may be true, Jeremiah has the advantage that so many other kids do not, in terms of having a family with education and resources to make sure that no matter what, his needs are cared for.

School Board Sees Disproportionality in Montgomery Program

The bigger picture is in the statistics presented by Principal McNeil two weeks ago.  Stunning and horrific statistics that make the district’s job here necessary.

As I met with the principal and have worked with teachers and staff over the years, what dawned on me on Thursday is that we have a stereotype for what failed schools look like.  We put the blame on teachers and the principal.  It is the easy thing to do.

However, with personal experience, we have had many principals over our nine years and three elementary schools in the district, and Jen McNeil, who was universally lauded by the board on Thursday, deserves every word of praise.  When I sat down with her on Thursday, she knew my kid, she knew his situation, she knew his needs, and she promised to help support him through the transition.

That has been our experience universally at Montgomery.  Excellent teachers, caring and devoted staff, and a principal second-to-none.  That Montgomery is not succeeding is not on the teachers and staff, it is on all of us.

The reality is that we as a city, a community, a district and, yes, going broader as a society have failed children of color and disadvantaged kids in their education.  The fact that it occurs in
DJUSD with its affluence and advantages underscores how pervasive this problem is.

As parent Mark Baker who disagreed with the cutting of the English-only program stated, “The elephant in the room that no one seems to want to acknowledge… is that there is pervasive socioeconomic segregation that is occurring in our district.

“What we’re seeing is that there’s the poor kids and the Mexican kids, the Latino kids, there’s a huge percentage of these demographics that go to MME.”  He said, “I think that allowing this segregation to continue is wrong, it’s bad for the community.”

He concluded, “By allowing parents and children to segregate on the basis of wealth, you are doing a disservice to the community.”

Board Member Madhavi Sunder acknowledged, “We have been failing these children in the school district.”  She praised the work of the principal and the teachers, but criticized “the structure that has left these classrooms segregated.  It’s because we had white flight out of this (school).  We had people choosing to leave a (school) that was racially heterogeneous and socio-economically heterogeneous.

“They were all put together and we had people opting out,” she said.  Thirty-eight percent of the families zoned into that school opt to go to another school.  However, on the other hand, the TWBI attracts people to come to the school, 49 percent of the MME population come to the TWBI from other neighborhoods, and that includes my 2nd grade daughter.  Ms. Sunder said, “They chose an inclusive school.”

This is the reality that we face.  The reason why the English program at Montgomery is failing is that the affluent students who live in the school boundaries are opting to go elsewhere.  The students who succeed elsewhere are leaving and that leaves behind a low SES student population which struggles everywhere in the district and, because of their concentrations at Montgomery, it puts strain on the resources of the school to meet the needs of all the kids.

We have created this problem.  Alan Fernandes wanted to reconsider attendance boundaries for elementary schools across the district, but really the elephant in the room, as Mr. Baker put it, is intra-district transfers.  The ability for any parent in this district to move their kid to another school.

The reality that we live in is that attempting to change either the boundaries or the intra-district transfer policy would mean war.  There is no practical way to do it without blowing things up.

The hope of the principal and school board is that by eliminating the “failed” English program and moving to a TWBI-only program we can reset the school.  The advantages here, the attendance for English only, is already declining.  Students are transferring elsewhere already.  Jeremiah is one of just seven current kindergartners affected by this, and the incoming kindergarten class is only three kids.

Second, the TWBI class, Ms. Sunder argued on Thursday, has succeeded.  There is still an achievement gap, but that gap is closed somewhat for the TWBI and it is far worse for the English program.

Third, you have a program that students and families want to opt into which means that you no longer have the demographic mix that is so problematic for the English program.

That being said, in a lot of ways the district is putting a tourniquet on a lethal wound.  They are hoping to stop the bleeding.  They are hoping that TWBI will improve the situation, not only at Montgomery but for many English-language learners across the district.

The reality, however, is that there is nothing particularly novel about MME other than its concentration of at-risk and disadvantaged kids.  The problems at MME exist everywhere, only in smaller numbers for children of color.  That is where we as a community and we as a society have failed.

Looking at the amazing and dedicated staff at MME, it is easy to see that we have a great school, but what we need are tools to allow it to succeed.  Hopefully these are the first steps toward getting there, but the district needs to do a better job of closing the achievement gap as a whole.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Keith O

    The fact that it occurs in DJUSD with its affluence and advantages underscores how pervasive this problem is.

    Huh?  I thought DJUSD was underfunded when compared to most other regional school districts.

      1. Keith O

        Then maybe you should have wrote:  The fact that it occurs in DJUSD Davis with its affluence and advantages underscores how pervasive this problem is.

        1. David Greenwald

          I think “in DJUSD” is correct probably should replace “its” with Davis’. Using a pronoun with multiple subjects is problematic.  Mea culpa. If that is the worst mistake I’ve made today with virtually no sleep all week I will own up to it

  2. Ron

    “The reason why the English program at Montgomery is failing is that the affluent students who live in the school boundaries are opting to go elsewhere.”

    Wondering about the premise, here.  Wouldn’t all (or most) parents opt to send their children to the “best” school available to them?

      1. Ron

        Cindy:  I thought of that, but do you think that’s the primary reason?  (Parents can’t get their kids to a school that’s a couple miles away?)  (Kind of wondering why anyone would have kids, under those circumstances.  But, I digress – and will probably get myself in trouble if I comment further about that.)

        Admittedly, I’m someone who (at times) wonders why anyone has kids. 🙂 (Yeah, I probably shouldn’t go there. I can feel myself getting into trouble, already.)

        1. David Greenwald

          I think you’re asking a complicated question.

          But I would note there is a large number of parents who walk their kids to school at Montgomery.

        2. Ron

          David:  Thanks for not jumping on me, regarding my comment.

          I do think there may be more than one reason that some parents might opt to send their kids to a school that is not at the “top level”, academically.  For example, if their kids are not prepared for greater academic rigor?  Or, the kids/parents are already tied to their existing school, socially?  (Just guessing.) I do wonder about it, regardless.

          And yet, many other parents “obsess” about getting their kids into the “top school”. (Sometimes, planning for it before the kid is even born.)

        3. David Greenwald

          Also you are dealing with a population that is a high percentage of English language learners, and so some of the parents (given a number of factors) may not be aware that there are problems in the school.

        4. Keith O

          So what’s the answer?  Force parents to enroll their kids at Montgomery even though they feel they’re kids will be better served at a different school?  Fund the very low enrolled English-only program at Montgomery even though DJUSD is inderfunded?

          1. Don Shor

            So what’s the answer? Force parents to enroll their kids at Montgomery even though they feel they’re kids will be better served at a different school?

            That was the answer six or seven years ago when we last discussed this issue on the Vanguard.

            Ultimately the answer is to fix the achievement gap, but that’s a bigger puzzle.

            The achievement gap is not fixable. Increase resources for underperforming students would be a more realistic goal.

        5. David Greenwald

          They’ve chosen to end the English program (phase it out over five years).  Ultimately the answer is to fix the achievement gap, but that’s a bigger puzzle.

        6. Tia Will


          (Parents can’t get their kids to a school that’s a couple miles away?)  (Kind of wondering why anyone would have kids, under those circumstances”

          No intent to “jump on you” but yes,  you have got yourself into trouble. Just one example. A mother can find herself minus a car, minus half of her income, or even all of it if her spouse decides to leave and not pay child support , or should happen to die as my dad did. We were working poor, dad as sole wage earner, mom never learned to drive nor completed beyond ninth grade as was typical for strata. But we did fine until my dad’s untimely death. Mom had done everything expected of her as a wife and mother and still found herself with two children she was unprepared to support alone.

          I don’t blame you, but do think that your comment illustrates a tendency to judge other people by our own experiences without being aware of the challenges and barriers they must face because we ourselves have not experienced it.

        7. David Greenwald

          It was an interesting contrast between Pioneer where my older kid went and Montgomery.  At Pioneer, the soccer moms dropped them off in their minivans and SUVs, at Montgomery, you se a lot of mothers (and some fathers) pushing kids in strollers and walking their kids to school.  I’m over-generalizing, but it was definitely something I noticed.

        8. Ron

          Tia:  To me, your situation provides an example of a family that was perhaps not fully prepared to have kids (e.g., no life insurance, and no way to adequately support a family under the circumstances that occurred).  Also, at the time you grew up, things were quite different, regarding women in the workplace, etc.

          My family was actually quite similar, in the beginning.  (At that time, it seems like less thought went into having a family.)  Fortunately, they did not suffer the same circumstances as your family did, later.  (However, I would say that my own family was perhaps just as unprepared as yours, had a tragedy occurred – such as in your family.)

          Fortunately (and I’m not sure how), you were able to overcome those hardships.

          Perhaps it is just me, but I can’t imagine purposefully taking such risks.  I suspect that (in general), more thought and preparation goes into the choice to have a family, these days.


  3. Ken A

    The typical young family with kids moving to Davis and buying a “starter home” (for over half a million) these days is still paying off grad school student loan debt and are in increasing numbers choosing not to have any kids or are part of the “one and done” club.  The smart thing to do is to just close MME, lease the land for millions and send all the out of Davis kids back to their home districts.  With the aging local population and smaller families it does not make sense to keep increasing the parcel taxes in town so the people of Davis can pay for an extra school just so we can educate the kids of people who work here (and don’t pay parcel taxes).

    P.S. I agree with David that the staff of MME is “amazing and dedicated” but even the MOST “amazing and dedicated” teachers in the world will not be able to close the “achievement gap” between kids raised by parents with advanced degrees who spend hours per week doing homework one on one with their kids who also watch stuff on the Khan Academy as a family and who sent their kids to educational camps all summer with the kids raised by parents (more often than not just a single parent) who barely made it of High School who is having a tough time just shopping preparing meals, doing laundry and keeping the apartment clean so the kids spends a lot of time with a tablet watching cartoons on Netflix…


    1. JM Roos

      Ken A –

      The sentiment that “[t]he smart thing to do is to just close MME, lease the land for millions and send all the out of Davis kids back to their home districts” would almost be comical if it didn’t represent such a very real, very troubling philosophy.

      Our “typical young family” moved to Davis in large part for its schools and community, and specifically sought a home in the MME district because of it’s reputation for quality, caring teachers and administration, but also because it appears to be one of the only schools where inclusion and acceptance is prioritized over raw math and language arts scores.

      Our little one won’t start school for several years, but is fortunate to have two dedicated parents with advanced degrees (both from UC Davis). It’s because we have the resources and energy to help our little one(s) study hard and learn well that we: (1) shouldn’t be concerned that they’re not constantly co-mingling with the (alleged) intellectual elite (read “socioeconomically advantaged”) of their peer age group; and (2) should willfully and gladly take up the task of assisting in the education of those less fortunate, whether or not they pay parcel taxes, because a diverse, well-rounded and educated community is a strong one.

      We learned that lesson many years ago in California public schools, and it has served us very well. It would be a shame to replace it in favor of  unnecessary and unproductive socioeconomic exclusivity.

      1. Ken A

        I’m hoping that JM Roos will take a step back and realize that his family is not “typical” since most (but not all) parents with advanced degrees try and get their kids in to the schools with the highest test scores.

        I’m not saying that “the gap can’t ever close” since as kids get older if they are self motivated (like Tia) the can work hard and go on to become a Doctor, Lawyer MD or Astronaut.  What I’m saying is that in a K-5 school there is no way to get “most” of the kids with parents who never read to them (or can’t read English) to the same level as “most” kids whose parents have been reading and playing educational games with them for over an hour EVERY DAY since they were born.

        I grew up poor, my parents didn’t go to college and I spent over a decade tutoring motivated poor kids and even helping some of them get out of underperforming schools in to better schools.  Like Don “One of my pet peeves is becoming the repeated articulation of unrealistic and unattainable goals”.  I would love it if 30% of the shoppers in Davis came by bike (the Burley trailer is attached to my bike now and since the sun is out I won’t be driving to the store) but that will probably never happen I would also love it if every kid in Davis was good in math since their parents spent hours working with them (and sent them to summer math camp) but that is even less likely to happen…

        P.S. In addition to paying our parcel taxes we help fund a school in Honduras (where we also volunteer).  If we had one less school and lower parcel taxes every homeowner would have more money to help the less fortunate…

      2. Tia Will

        JM Roos

        gladly take up the task of assisting in the education of those less fortunate, whether or not they pay parcel taxes, because a diverse, well-rounded and educated community is a strong one.”

        I am in complete agreement with this portion of your post. I believe that those of us who are socioeconomically or intellectually or academically privileged should be willing, for the sake of a stronger community and society to give back to the society that helped us succeed. I believe in contribution, whether of personal time, talents, or money. I believe that involvement of those who have plenty is of benefit to all.


  4. Tia Will

    Ken A

    I disagree with your premise that we cannot “close the gap”. Children with less educated parents need more help in order to close the gap and compete as individuals, but they can do it if the help is there. I am one specific example of that. My dad had a high school education, mom ninth grade. I had no one to hover over me with advanced homework, and yet I was able to go to college and succeed in a highly competitive field. We should be concentrating more on how to provide more opportunities for the children of the less educated and less time worrying about whether or not it will cost us more in the short term in taxes.

    Looking at the big picture, do you think that individuals such as myself are a bigger benefit to our society in the long run with a strong education than if we are stuck in minimum wage jobs because people did not want to help pay for our education through their taxes?

    1. Don Shor

      We can help individuals and should provide the resources wherever and however they’re needed. But I do not think we can close the achievement gap, for a number of structural and definitional reasons.
      The achievement gap is correlated directly with parental educational level. There are language barriers that make it difficult for the district to get the information out about resources. They should try harder about that. Efforts that help the whole school don’t solve the gap because they raise everyone up and the gap remains.
      That’s just for starters. Teachers and counselors will tell you about home situations and income constraints that are impediments to the progress of lower-performing students. It would take a significant reallocation of resources (money) to provide what they need. Education funding is somewhat of a zero-sum game: what you put here, you’ve taken away from there. Unless you have a ready source of new income, you can see the problem with that.
      One of my pet peeves is becoming the repeated articulation of unrealistic and unattainable goals. When I’ve served on committees I have found the statement of goals is often not accompanied by an actual roadmap of action items that have provable basis for believing they will achieve the goal. My immediate question is “what are the action items and who is doing them?”
      List the action items, determine who is responsible for implementing them, set milestones for assessing implementation, and monitor results. After you’ve done that for awhile, maybe you can actually state an achievable goal that is measurable. Otherwise it’s just hot air and a lot of hand-wringing.

    2. Howard P

      What “achievement gap” are you referring to, Tia?  Ethnicity?  Gender?  Family income?  Family education?  Is it normalized for ‘cognitive ability’?

      All of the above?

      Is the “gap” measured at median, average, across all of the ‘bell curve’?

      1. Tia Will


        I was referring to the comment that specifically had singled out the education of the parents. The answer to your question is doubtless all of the above. But I believe that the education of the parents is a major factor in the success of the child, unless something remarkable happens that changes the child’s academic trajectory. Ironically enough, in my life what happened was the death of my father. This could have consigned me to a lower economic status but had the opposite effect. The message I took from my father’s death was to depend on no one other than oneself. I certainly learned that I could not rely on a man as my mother erroneously had felt that she could do. That along with social security and my mother’s determination that I would go to college if I wanted to. I was in a strong school system and even without help at home, was able to learn and progress. Another factor was government programs that provided me with my first job and later provided some of the funding for medical school.

        The take home lesson for me is that life is uncertain and even those who play by the rules of their time may be met with unexpected challenges. This could happen to anyone regardless of how well they thought they had planned.  When tragedy does occur, we have a choice as a society. We can reach out and help, or we can allow failure and then cast blame. I prefer the former.

  5. Ron

    Ken’s comments, as well as some of David’s and Don’s observations, seem to show a marked difference between different “groups” of populations, regarding choice to have a family, income levels, ethnicity, views toward education, etc.  Not sure how else to say that (without getting myself into trouble, again).  Nor do I have any answer for it.

  6. Ron

    David:  Thought I’d push this a little further:

    ” . . . so some of the parents (given a number of factors) may not be aware that there are problems in the school.”

    If some are not even aware of it, it seems like others (and not those who are “suffering”) are:

    1. trying to point out a problem, and
    2. solve it for them – without their knowledge or involvement.

    This doesn’t seem like a strategy for success.  

    1. David Greenwald

      I’m kind of thinking it might be helpful to publish the teacher who talked about the stories she hears from her students about their home lives.

      1. Ron

        It might be.  Sounds like there might be some overwhelming situations.

        In general, it seems that solutions require input and interest from those who are experiencing problems. (And, they’re probably don’t have time to comment on the Vanguard.)

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