When Montgomery County Public Schools opens the new Seneca Valley High School next Fall, including its new Career and Technology Education center (essentially a franchise of Thomas Edison High School of Technology) it will be the largest high school in the state of Maryland. For several years Seneca Valley has been one of MCPS’ few under-enrolled high schools, while nearby Northwest and Clarksburg High Schools have been over capacity, with enrollment projections showing both Northwest and Clarksburg over capacity by 400-800 students within the next 5 years.
It’s very clear that school assignments in the Clarksburg, Northwest and Seneca Valley Clusters needed to shift to address our school system’s realities and our county’s growth patterns and infrastructure. However, the process of evaluating possible school assignment options, and making a final decision about how to assign students once the new Seneca Valley HS opened, was fraught, difficult and divisive.
After determining the new school assignments in the Clarksburg, Northwest and Seneca Valley Clusters, the Board of Education passed a resolution on November 26, 2019 describing how the new assignment structure would be implemented. The resolution calls for rising 6th and 7th graders to matriculate according to the new school assignments, and rising 9th and 10th graders to similarly transfer according to the 2020-21 school assignments.
A public school system’s first priority, always, should be its students. The only job of public schools is to educate and prepare generations of students for the world they are preparing to enter. Even as it addresses very real economic and capacity pressures, schools must keep the best interests of students, including their social and emotional wellbeing, front and center.
The reassignment of rising 7th graders and rising 10th graders can be socially and emotionally challenging for some students. Although for several decades MCPS policy has been to make reassignments required by the opening or reopening of a school immediately effective except for students with only one year remaining in their current school (rising 8th and 12th graders), there is precedent for gentler transitions.
When Northwood High School reopened in 2004, no current high school students were reassigned. MCPS made the decision to populate Northwood one year at a time, so in 2004-05, the school had only freshman, in 2005-06 only freshmen and sophomores until the first class graduated from the reopened Northwood in May, 2008.
More recently, when Rolling Terrace Elementary School transitioned from an over-enrolled elementary school with a partial Spanish immersion program to one of MCPS’ five two-way immersion schools, MCPS announced in November 2017 that the change would be fully effective with the start of the 2018 school year. Students currently part of the partial Spanish immersion program not residing in the Rolling Terrace assignment area had two choices – return to their ‘home’ elementary school, or transfer to the partial Spanish immersion program at William Tyler Page Elementary school. After parents and staff expressed concern about the disruption caused by the sudden change, and Page Elementary’s ability to absorb all students interested in continuing their partial Spanish immersion program, MCPS found a way to ease the transition.
MCPS should consider a student-first solution – allowing students the option of remaining in their current school until they transition to the next level, or, for rising 10th-12th graders, until they graduate. MCPS can control “creep” by putting a hard stop on things like sibling preference – rising 6thgraders and rising 9th graders make the change. Giving students and families an option recognizes the wide range of student needs and family circumstances.