Magnet Programs Under Fire for Racial Disparities

by Katherine Sperduto ‘19

Critics of Montgomery County’s selective magnet programs are demanding reforms that will increase the numbers of black and Hispanic students. The controversy over the programs comes after a report published in March and delivered to the MCPS Board of Education concluded, “There are significant racial and socioeconomic disparities in the enrollment and acceptance rates to academically selective programs, which suggest a need to revise the criteria and process used to select students for these programs to eliminate barriers to access for highly able students of all backgrounds.”

The New York City-based research firm Metis found that for selective magnet schools at the MCPS high school level, the acceptance rate for whites was 45 percent, compared with 39 percent for Asians, 23 percent for Hispanics, and 19 percent for African Americans. Only 11 percent of low-income students are accepted to the programs. Enrollment in the district’s elementary centers for the highly gifted was 47-percent white, 34-percent Asian, 8-percent African American, 8-percent low-income and 4-percent Latino in the 2013-2014 school year.

Acceptance into an MCPS magnet school is not easy. For example, at Montgomery Blair’s science, math, and computer science program, the criteria used to determine candidates are teacher recommendations, written statements from students, previous grades, coursework, and test scores. Another competitive magnet program is Richard Montgomery’s international baccalaureate diploma program, which uses the same criteria to determine their candidates as Montgomery Blair plus the candidates’ ability to meet the high standard academic requirements and to handle rigorous pre-university classes.

The reasons for the racial inequities in MCPS magnet programs, however, are more complex than students meeting standards for acceptance. According to the report, the majority of families are unaware of the existence of these programs. Many of these families tend to be low-income, either black or Hispanic, or reside in low-income areas of Montgomery County. “There are great inequities in terms of access. The majority of our families don’t even know these programs exists,” stated Diego Uriburu, co-chair of the Montgomery County Latino Advocacy Coalition, in The Washington Post.

In the report, Metis recommended that in order to better achieve equal access and excellence throughout these magnet programs, MCPS should develop new strategies for communicating and sharing information with hard-to-reach families by offering other materials and information in other languages besides English. The report also recommended that MCPS reach out more to families at community events or locations.

Another solution that was proposed in the report is to modify the selection process used for many academically competitive programs within MCPS to focus on applicants that show the capacity to thrive by not including the use of cognitive criteria.