Friday, December 14, 2012


by Frederick Stichnoth
            Choice: the Basics described the composition of the Northeast Consortium and the Downcounty Consortium, each from multiple attendance zones and multiple high schools in MCPS’ red zone. Assignments to these schools depend on student choice, conditions that limit choice of non-base area schools, and attractiveness. Any fall off of choice indicates that attractiveness should be restored through system investment. Ideally, students sort themselves by program attractiveness in a way that fulfills the purposes: schools are racially, ethnically, socio-economically diverse, with diversity promoting academic performance.
            Like any ideal on paper or in a Board resolution, choice requires ongoing implementation with fidelity.
            What if the multiple attendance zones were not diverse? Choice combines residential attendance zones that lack diversity individually and differ among themselves as to makeup. Re-sorting by program attractiveness creates diverse schools from homogeneous neighborhoods. What if the schools teamed in the consortium did not differ among themselves as to makeup? No amount of re-sorting by program attractiveness could produce diverse schools.
            What if the conditions limiting choice of non-base area schools were ignored?  This would have no effect, so long as sorting was still accomplished effectively by program differentiation and attractiveness. If attractiveness were ineffective, and if managers succumbed to the importuning of parents because “choice is good,” then unfettered choice might preserve neighborhood homogeneity, or even Balkanize students further (especially given unequal programming or buildings or reputation). The conditions limiting non-base area choice are an emergency brake. Choice is a means, not an end.
            What if signature programs were not equally enticing? Choice is exercised by families in which 13-year-olds have substantial say. A performing arts program might be more enticing than the coherence and discipline of International Baccalaureate instruction. Such a programmatic mismatch might tilt the scales of choice.
            What if the schools were not equally shiny new? Many people, including 13-year-olds, are attracted by contemporary architecture, new appointments, unsullied hallways. A substantial mismatch in the age of the school buildings might tilt the choice.
            What if the signature program were not refurbished? Assume that a school were marketing its technology signature, but that at open house 13-year-olds and parents saw aging machines? The luster might dim.
            What if budget declines caused program constriction? Budgets depend on school census and budgets fund staff and programs. As census declines, classes are cancelled or multiple class levels double-, triple- or quadruple-up. What if programs constrict in one school but expand in another school, and the two schools compete for students on the basis of programming?
            What if the signal to invest were ignored? Choice is a competition among school brands. A few years of under-choice signal that the brand must be restored through investment. If there is a failure to invest, then the brand decline probably will continue, even accelerate, through the indefinite future. Market competition among schools establishes a dynamic and an imperative different from traditional simple neighborhood collection.
            What if reputation is impugned? Reputation should rest on the investment of students and teachers in the signature, and other academic and extracurricular, programs. What if investment is questioned due to relatively low test scores? What if a school begins to be seen as racially/ethnically isolated? What if a school is tarred, however unfairly, as dangerous? Choice becomes avoidance; a tipping point is crossed.
            Choice is not “set it and forget it,” but management and maintenance.

December 12, 2011


  1. Yes. Words still important a year later.
    …What if Sherwood HS had been or would be required to fully participate as a Northeast Consortium high school?
    …What if the BOE would adhere to its guidelines and establish a more reasonable capacity for Springbrook HS? Unlike other NEC high schools, Springbrook has fewer than 25 acres (well below the recommended BOE minimum of 30 usable acres for high schools and well below the acreages at the other NEC high schools). Springbrook’s site and its limited field space present a barrier to the Choice Process and equity. But what if matching its exterior, Springbrook’s interior identity would be recrafted and rebranded as the small high school in the NEC? Having a small(er) school option in Northwood HS seems to be a plus for the DCC.

    1. The BOE threw out their guidelines for school sites years ago. 30 acres no longer means anything. School sites are now up to the discretion of MCPS' James Song and the BOE says nothing. They have delegated that authority to "staff".

      Superintendent Jerry Weast made it very, very clear that school conditions and site size had NO relation to learning. All that mattered was a good teacher in each classroom. Weast let facilities and sites deteriorate because they weren't important.

  2. “Choice” of high school in the Northeast Consortium for moderate-income families in the Springbrook zone may soon go from slim to none at all! A new HOC plan to develop affordable housing at the site of the National Labor College could significantly increase the population of low-income students in the Springbrook territory, where the Consortium already restricts the choices of most moderate-income families to balance Springbrook’s larger low-income population. A partnership comprised of the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) and the Reid Temple A.M.E. Church have provided the National Labor College a “letter of intent” to purchase the property, located on New Hampshire Ave. at Powder Mill Rd. The large parcel of land, currently zoned R-60 (and operating with a special exception for an educational purpose), abuts an existing complex of HOC-operated housing. If County leaders permit this project they will be ignoring their own mandate to balance the distribution of housing in each price range throughout the County. They will eliminate “choice” for high school students where “choice” has been fighting to hang on and has hung on by a mere thread.


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