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.
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