Montgomery County schools change in poverty metric underestimates need, some say

Nine-year-old Leo Kennedy used to struggle with writing.

Then an enrichment teacher at Viers Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md. — where Leo is a fourth-grader — started pushing him more, recounted his mom, Laurel Kennedy. After the teacher gave him C’s, it motivated him to try harder. Leo started writing, and he loved it. Now, his dream is to become a reporter.

But the program that helped Leo discover his love of writing is in jeopardy, now that Viers Mill is losing a federal Title I grant that’s key in paying for the enrichment teacher and other positions. Three other Montgomery County elementary schools are in a similar predicament.

The four campuses are among 58 Montgomery schools participating in the Community Eligibility Provision, another federal program that gives free breakfast and lunch to all students at certain schools with high need. Through it, Montgomery County Public Schools says it is feeding more children than ever at no cost.

But schools participating in the program are no longer collecting applications for free and reduced meals, a metric that the Montgomery schools district has traditionally relied on to measure poverty at schools and dole out Title I money.

Now, there are concerns that the school system’s new methodology doesn’t fully capture how much need is on a campus, and schools that need additional federal funding may not get it. It also comes as the Montgomery County Public Schools is seeing a drop in Title I money overall as its demographics change.

Last school year, about 75 percent of Viers Mill students received free or reduced[price lunch, Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Chris Cram said. But under the district’s new metric, the poverty level fell to about 65 percent. Under the new estimate, Viers Mill Elementary will lose its Title I status in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

During an October 2022 report, the Maryland Department of Education warned of an “inevitable disparity” for schools participating in the Community Eligibility Provision: “These CEP schools will then intrinsically have a lower FARMs rate than other schools who are not participating in CEP, even if the student population is identical.”

The state’s Department of Education said at the time that it would work on an “alternative income eligibility form” that could capture some of the students that are missing in the data. But while the agency initially promised to create that form by 2023, it isn’t expected to roll out until the 2025-2026 school year.

Poverty calculations are vital to establish which schools qualify for Title I status, a designation that enables campuses to receive extra federal aid. In the Montgomery school system — which has 45 Title I schools in the 2023-2024 school year — the funding has helped establish summer programs and recruit staff.

Census data on an area’s poverty levels is used to determine how much Title I money is distributed to school divisions like Montgomery. The district receives a preliminary allocation of money from the state Department of Education in the spring, Cram said.

Last year, Montgomery received about $52 million to split among schools, but it has not received an estimate for the upcoming fiscal year. However, the school system typically will make its own estimate of potential Title I funding by reviewing census data. This year, with census data from 2022 indicating there were fewer students in poverty in Montgomery, school officials project the division will receive less Title I funding in the coming school year.

With some schools no longer collecting the free and reduced meal applications, the school system used a different method to decide how to distribute its Title I money. The new “direct certification” process uses data from public benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to estimate the poverty level of a school — a method that follows guidance from the federal government, according to a document issued in February 2022. The district then ranked schools by amount of need.

That method “changed the ranking of the schools quite drastically,” Peggy Pugh, the Montgomery district’s chief academic officer, said during a February school board meeting. “Some of the schools slipped [in the ranking]. Some of them moved up much faster than we anticipated.”

While a school’s Title I status can change on a year-to-year basis, Pugh said, “this year, we couldn’t predict what happened actually.”

In addition to the changes at Viers Mill, Brookhaven Elementary School in Rockville, Md., went from 72 percent to 66 percent. At Oak View Elementary School in Silver Spring, the number dropped from about 74 percent to 65 percent. But the largest decrease was at Strathmore Elementary School, which went from 73 percent to about 60 percent. Each school lost between about $360,000 to $520,000 to pay for staff and other programs.

On the flip side, six new schools were identified as Title I. Through the method, the poverty level at East Silver Spring Elementary School rose from about 62 percent to about 80 percent. Other schools showing higher need under the new method were S. Christa McAuliffe Elementary School and Waters Landing Elementary School in Germantown, Md.; Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Burtonsville, Md.; Meadow Hall Elementary School in Rockville; and Strawberry Knoll Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Md.

In February, principals at the four schools losing their Title I status started notifying their parent-teacher associations of the change. A letter from Brookhaven Elementary School Principal Xavier Kimber explained that the school would be losing several important learning interventions, including summer school and key staff members.

“This loss brings about several significant implications for our school, staff, and most importantly, our students,” Kimber wrote in his letter.

Parents were perplexed by the switch-up. One of the schools losing funding, Oak View, serves only students in grades three through five. But its feeder school, New Hampshire Estates Elementary — which serves children in between prekindergarten and second grade — kept their Title I status.

“Our numbers haven’t just changed overnight,” said Danielle Ring, a parent of a fifth-grader at Strathmore Elementary School. “They are pretty consistent over what they’ve been for the past few years.” She added that the method the school system uses appears to cut out families who are undocumented, since it relies on public benefits.

Donna Gunning, an assistant state superintendent, said state officials are working on a method that would help districts with schools in the Community Eligibility Provision identify more students who may be in need.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County Public Schools has sought grants to pay for resources provided at the four schools losing their Title I status. “It goes without saying that our focus on equity remains no matter the Title I status of any school,” Cram said.

Parents and students at the schools are wanting to bring more attention to the issue.

This month, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Viers Mill Elementary who are part of a local Girl Scouts troop organized a walkout during the school day. The elementary school students called on the school system to keep their teachers and programs.

Leo, the 9-year-old who used to be hesitant to write, decided to cover the rally as his first reporting assignment. The change will probably affect the accelerated math and enhanced reading classes he takes.

“I feel a bit sad that I’m not going to be able to get an education that I’m on level for and stuff, and that some teachers are going to lose their jobs and stuff,” Leo said. “I feel mad because, seriously, MCPS? What did we do?”

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