Stepping Up in the Montgomery County Public Schools

By Cowan, Katherine C. | National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Stepping Up in the Montgomery County Public Schools


Cowan, Katherine C., National Association of School Psychologists. Communique


COMMUNICATION MATTERS

It is tough out there. No matter who you talk to in education, grim is a common theme. Demands are growing. Stress is increasing. Resources are disappearing. Morale is sinking. Many people fear free-falling off the funding cliff. Others are adopting survival mode. The severity of the situation varies greatly from state to state but no one, it seems, is totally immune. Against this landscape, school psychologists are trying to assess prospects in terms of jobs, roles, ratios, and relevancy to the public discourse around school reform priorities.

It feels daunting. You can see why some folks are tempted by the instinct to throw up their hands in despair or hunker down until the storm passes and hope to emerge as intact as possible. Yet NASP is hearing from an increasing number of members who are choosing to craft a course of action to shape decision-making, even in small ways, rather than waiting to see how the larger economic and school reform forces play out.

The school psychologists in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), Maryland, are a prime example. "Basically, we have no other choice. We have the skills and knowledge to provide solutions and reform practice to better serve our students and families," explains June Lucas Zillich, coprésident with Debra Wotherspoon of the local Montgomery County School Psychology Association (MCSPA). "We are significantly stepping up our professional advocacy this year." The local group has developed a comprehensive advocacy plan involving every one of the school psychologists in the district.

CONTEXT

MCPS is the 17th largest school district in the country, with more than 146,000 students and 200 schools (34 of which are National Blue Ribbon and 27 of which are Title 1). Once serving a predominately white middle class suburban population, MCPS has undergone the same demographic shifts in the past 2 decades seen in many school systems across the United States. Today the MCPS student population is 33% white, 26% Hispanic, 21% African American, 14% Asian American, and has students from 164 countries speaking 184 languages. Twelve percent of students receive special education services and 42% participate or have participated in the Free and Reduced-Priced Meals System (MCPS website: http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/uploadedFiles/about/ MCPS-At-A-Glance.pdf).

Wielding a budget of more than $2 billion, MCPS is also one of the top performing school districts in the country, with a 90% graduation rate (the best among the 50 largest school districts) and some of the nation's consistently highest achievement scores. Many credit the leadership of former MCPS superintendent Jerry Weast (1999-2011), ahighlyvisible and controversial school leaderwho ushered in the agenda of "Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap" by emphasizing and disaggregating achievement data even before No Child Left Behind was conceived. Current superintendent Joshua Starr is maintaining the focus on achievement but looking to move beyond a singular reliance on test scores to include broader outcome measures and an emphasis on student engagement and social-emotional learning. Dr. Starr has emphasized professional development, interventions, and community engagement as district priorities for the 2012-2013 school year. With the changes in district priorities also comes changes in leadership and organizational alignment, which in turn present new ways of addressing leadership staff. The school board is also very engaged in supporting the district and has been involved in intense discussion over budget issues in recent years with the County Council. All of these entities comprise the key decision-makers to whom the MCPS school psychologists know they must reach out and share how their specific skills can provide essential services in tight budgetary times.

THE CHALLENGES

Despite many enviable aspects of MCPS's position, the reality of the economy and direction of school reform is hitting hard here, too, and school psychologists are being affected. …

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