Opinion: Is Montgomery as Progressive as Everyone Thinks It Is?

With everything that has been going on with the Montgomery County Public Schools boundary analysis study and people being shocked at the racist and classist vitriol being hurled about, I just wanted to say these attitudes have always been there. While I do not speak for the black community in Montgomery County, my experiences as a black man in the county inform my views not only on the attitudes but also my thoughts on the boundary study.

There are many stories that I can pull from showing the racism and classism in the Montgomery County public school system, but I will choose only a few that still cause me to chuckle to keep from yelling.

The first incident happened in eighth grade where we had to take the Measures of Academic Progress-Reading, or MAP-R, test. MAP-R was used to determine one’s reading level.

The first time I took it, my score came back saying that my reading level was the equivalent of a senior in high school. That should’ve been the end of it. However, two weeks later I was called into the office and in there were my folks, the principal, my English teacher and someone from the school system. They had called me in there not to congratulate but to accuse me of cheating on the test.

Mind you, my English teacher had told them that I was very well-read, and my folks always took me to libraries and bookstores so it wasn’t a shock to see that I could read.

The person from the school system said, “There’s no way that this kid, from this side of the county could’ve scored that well. He had to have cheated.”

Needless to say, I was forced to take the test again in a room with a teacher, a security guard and two police officers. Each time I looked up those officers would leer at me like a wolf at its prey. I finished, and this time my score showed my reading level was the equivalent of a college freshman.

In other words, I scored higher, and I went off on everybody in the room. I told the officers that while they were busy looking at a nerd, they could’ve been chasing real criminals. I told the security officer that this time I did nothing wrong, and I pointed out that the teacher had just wasted time.

What got me then and now is how people in these positions of power will do everything they can to maintain the status quo and support the stereotype that black kids don’t read and don’t want to learn and will try to smash anybody that defies it.

I wish I could say this was the only story. Alas, it was not.

The next incident took place around the summer before going into ninth grade. Around this time there was the consortium system. My mom, who was very active in the PTA and an education activist, took me to a meeting about schools in the Northeast Consortium of which Paint Branch High School was a part of.

As such, parents and teachers from Sherwood High School, which is roughly a 15-minute ride from Paint Branch, all said they didn’t want to be part of the Northeast Consortium because “we don’t want those kids from those areas coming here and ruining our schools and neighborhoods.” At the same time, a few parent reps from Blake High School were beginning a campaign to get the Free and Reduced Meals, or FARMS, kids out of Blake High.

Mind you, Paint Branch was beginning its run as the only school in the country where black and brown students were getting scores of 3 or higher on Advanced Placement exams. In addition, Paint Branch had the Academy of Finance, which I was a part of, medical careers, a thriving culinary arts program where some students have gone on to start their own catering businesses.

Plus, as my mom pointed out at that meeting to the parent reps, most of the kids at Blake who were on FARMS were white and asked them to stop stereotyping black folks with FARMS because more white used the program than black folks and non-black students of color.

At the same time, even though Paint Branch was supposed to start building its new school, construction kept getting pushed back due to not having any money. I was playing sports and going to high schools around the county and seeing all this construction and new businesses coming up in places like Bethesda, Potomac and Rockville. I saw that those schools had teachers who were qualified to teach their subjects. I had a math teacher my junior year who had a background in journalism and an honors chemistry teacher who had a background as a computer scientist, but we couldn’t bring in qualified and better teachers even though we “had no money.”

Department of Redundancy Department

This was nothing more than a farce, and I called it out at a meeting with administrators from the school system. In addition to that, I wanted to know why is it that we don’t have money to have more counselors and teachers who are qualified to teach the subjects they are teaching, yet we somehow have more money for police officers in the school? If anything, it seemed we were being trained more for prison than college. I got no answer, just dumbfounded silence from the administrators.

Fast forward to 2009, when the Board of Education passed a racial equity bill that had no mechanisms in place to enforce said equity nor to find ways to rid teachers, principals and administrators who went against it.

Fast forward to 2014, and a study was released on how schools in Montgomery County are more segregated now more than ever.

In this study in particular, the Office of Legislative Oversight, which so far has been trying to at least make an effort toward racial equity, stated that a key cause for the hyper re-segregation of schools was due to how the boundaries were set up. These boundaries were set up due to redlining, and this is important because the history of Montgomery County as a sundown suburb shows how we got to where we are today.

This is pivotal from the standpoint of the fact that even now, depending on the grade, roughly one-half to one-third of students do not even go to the school closest to their home. In addition, this study showed how resources that were supposed to help those in the poorer side of Montgomery County, were instead diverted to the more affluent parts here not only maintaining the racial status quo, but also the classism here in the school system as well.

How this reflects across the state is noted in an article by Brian Witte of The Associated Press on how “the state invests more in schools in affluent areas than it does on schools in areas of high poverty.”

The fact that five years later the same Office of Legislative Oversight has published another study showing the effects, there are some County Council members who still advocate putting more cops into schools and putting resources into areas that already do extraordinarily well.

For those who don’t want to read the full report, here is a recap:

  • Deliver more services to address root causes
  • Require schools to respond to challenging behaviors therapeutically
  • Increase parents and youth awareness of rights and available services
  • Enhance youth’s long-term relationships with adults
  • Improve coordination and data sharing among agencies and organizations
  • Expand diversion opportunities for low-income youth
  • Make schools engaging for high-risk youth
  • Increase jobs and income generating opportunities for high-risk youth

All of these things need to be done. While I support the study for boundaries and changing them, my thing is, especially as a black man, that until we do these things, address and change the culture within Montgomery County Public Schools, have a radical redistribution of the wealth and resources to address the needs of the most impacted students, have council members and school board members who will support the initiatives that their own Office of Legislative Oversight recommends and enforcement of said policies, we will continue to have the same old, same old and more and more students will continue to fall through the cracks.

This should dispel the myth of Montgomery County being a so-called progressive bastion because it is not and the attitudes are not only in the community, but outside of it as well in every facet of this society.

The only sad thing about writing this is that despite my personal experiences and observations, I still have to post studies because some just won’t accept anything unless a study comes with it.

— ROBERT STUBBLEFIELD

The writer is an activist and organizer with Young People for Progress, Showing Up for Racial Justice Montgomery County and the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition.