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[Interview] SMOB Finalists Agarwal and Guerci on the Achievement Gap

In the wake of their victories at the March Nominating Convention, SMOB nominees Rachit Agarwal and Eric Guerci sat down with us to discuss one of the greatest challenges facing Montgomery County: the achievement gap.

This interview, edited for both length and clarity, is a follow-up to the pre–Nominating Convention candidate interviews. Rachit Agarwal is a junior at Richard Montgomery High School, and Eric Guerci is a sophomore at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Voting will take place across the county on April 29 and is open to all middle and high school students.

HARGIS

What impact would you as an individual have on narrowing the achievement gap over the course of a single year on the Board of Education?

GUERCI

Obviously the achievement gap is a huge issue that can’t be solved in one year. What the board ultimately can do is vote on policies with the goal of closing the achievement gap, but I personally want to be a proactive SMOB, so I want to communicate with the Superintendent’s Office, with the Curriculum Office to see what’s working and what’s not. We aren’t going to close the achievement gap by letting everything get through to the Board table.

We also need to communicate with students, because they’re the ones who ultimately see where the rubber hits the road. They’re experiencing the policies that the Board makes in the classroom. Data and numbers don’t show everything, so you have to communicate with the students about what they feel is and isn’t working.

There are also statewide policies we can implement which we can have a huge impact on, but as SMOB, I also want to lead a coalition of teachers and administrators to help close the achievement gap and have open, genuine, transparent conversations, because the achievement gap is highly political.

AGARWAL

So one thing we have to do is be more transparent, like Eric said. Right now, the county may be putting lots of money into programs that could close the achievement gap, but parents and students don’t know what these programs are doing exactly. All we see is an investment into a goal, but we don’t know what steps are being taken toward that goal.

We should also be more specific in what these programs are doing. As SMOB, I’d prioritize a few things:

I’d be advocating for more bilingual ESOL teachers, because teachers are the main component of our education—more than technology. Teachers don’t need software updates to function. I was at an Operating Budget hearing where there were Hispanic ESOL students advocating for more bilingual ESOL teachers because they weren’t getting the support they needed, and they were having a lot of trouble in class. If you’re trying to learn math and the teacher doesn’t know your language, you’re going to struggle. And we see that ESOL students do often fall on the lower end of the achievement gap.

Another thing is encouraging the use of free technology. I’ve been trying to do this with some of my own teachers, and they’ve come on board with some of the apps I’ve suggested. Google Classroom and MyHomework, for example, basically help students organize work, tests, and assignments. It really helps bring technology to the classroom quickly, efficiently, and, most importantly, freely. Apps don’t require the school board to purchase and roll out devices, and also don’t require much training. These apps will help a lot of students who might be less engaged in the classroom engage through better organization. Like Genius—an app that lets you annotate a text online with the help of your teacher. You can join a class and make interactive annotations with other students. It really engages students better in English classrooms and even other subjects.

I think the best long term solution would definitely be expanding early childhood education, because that’s where the achievement gap stems from. At risk children who don’t receive a high quality of Pre-K education are 25% more likely to drop out of school, 20% more likely to become a teen parent, 60% more likely to not go to college, and 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime. 85% of our brain development begins before the age of five. If you aren’t getting the right start, you’ll definitely have trouble later on. We should further expand early childhood education programs over time to reach out to families who can’t afford it. The achievement gap is less of a racial issue and more of a socio-economic one. Lower income students simply are not given the necessary resources to do well.

ZIPF

With regards to your point about technology, do you worry that, if we introduce more Bring Your Own Device Programs, we’re leaving low-income students behind because they can’t necessarily afford the devices?

AGARWAL

I think that’s one of the biggest problems with BYOD. I was talking with a student from Kennedy HS and she was saying that there are a lot of students at Kennedy who don’t even have internet access at home. A realistic way to deal with that is to encourage schools to open up their media centers longer, so students have the resources to get productive work done. Students who can’t access online resources and apps at home—this would definitely help them.

GUERCI

Rachit brought up a lot of points that I’d like to expand on.

Firstly, engagement. Statistics show that less than 60% of students feel that they are engaged in the classroom. This stems from the combination of teacher involvement and access to technology. We can start with an increase in teacher training, especially because, with the new curriculum, many teachers report being overwhelmed. If they’re overwhelmed, students can become overwhelmed, which can lead to disengagement. A lot of the teachers have said that they’re actually being taught the curriculum as they’re teaching it, which leaves them pressed on time and which doesn’t necessarily allow them to develop lesson plans that could more creatively engage students.

With regard to engagement, I believe our education is also largely facilitated by our parents, and our schools need to aid our parents in doing that. This can also back to Rachit’s point about ESOL students, because a lot of their parents feel unengaged. I know that at the Operating Budget hearings last year, they were calling for some bilingual staff to call parents’ houses and to talk to parents about how their kids are doing. I was just reading an article about charter schools in DC where teachers were actually visiting students’ homes. They were getting paid only about $17 a visit, but it was about thirty minutes where they would just chat with the students and parents about how they were doing—nothing about their grades or the classroom. It was completely confidential, and these visits seemed to engage parents.

Going back to Rachit’s point about ESOL classes, I also feel that we should employ more bilingual teachers, but we also want to make sure ESOL students don’t feel separated from the rest of the school. We need to work to assimilate ESOL students into the school environment so they feel accepted.

AGARWAL

I don’t know if I necessarily with trying to integrate ESOL students into the entire school, because I think they should have the choice in term of their classes. If, for example, an ESOL student is in a normal NSL class and is having trouble understanding the content or doing the work, the student should have the choice between staying with that class or being separated but taking it in their own language. I do agree that integration can definitely help make students feel like part of the community and learn from each other, but I do feel like ESOL students should have a choice.

GUERCI

I agree, but I would definitely encourage more integration so that ESOL students are more likely to see higher education as an obtainable goal, which is where we ultimately want all of our students to be.

Another issue I want to touch on is inequity within schools with regards to after school activities. For example, a lot of schools have opportunities to stay after and get help from teachers, but teachers have to be paid for their overtime. I know a lot of schools have PTSAs that help aid that process, but we can continue to create equity between these schools by contributing to schools that don’t have these programs.

AGARWAL

I definitely agree with the point about after school activities. One specific thing we could do is expand certain student clubs that offer help to struggling students, like the National Honors Society at RM, which has a multitude of students willing to volunteer their lunchtimes to tutor students who struggle in class. Students often learn better from other students; even I learn better from friends, sometimes, then from my teacher, especially when the teacher isn’t available before or after class.

HARGIS

We’ve been discussing the achievement gap at the high school level quite a bit, but what about early childhood education? Rachit briefly touched on how missed opportunities at a young age perpetuate the widening of the gap, but are there any specific programs or policies either of you had in mind?

GUERCI

One of the goals Dr. Starr mentioned before he left was that we’re all reading at or above grade level by third grade. I forget the exact statistic, but only around 60% of student are at on-level by third grade, which is pretty low. We’re definitely not going to reach 100% if we continue to see class sizes increase with overpopulation and the cutting of staff members.

In terms of specific policy and legislation, last year, I advocated for the Pre-Kindergarten Expansion Act of 2014, which would have aided head-start programs that were working to expand upon programs that were most effective so as to include more students. Though our current governor might be reluctant to instill a universal Pre-K, the state legislature still has the power to implement bills and I want to continue working with state legislatures to expand these bills. I know a lot of our students who are in the head-start programs feel very energetic and engaged, and feel fortunate that they’re being given this opportunity. Continuing on that, “Excel Beyond the Bell” is in a lot of middle schools. It’s something that I believe we can expand and encourage students to go to, because not all students feel that that opportunity is being provided.

I know another problem is the availability of after school busing. A lot of students might not have a way to get home or might not be comfortable or able to afford using the public transportation system, so they rely on activity buses. These buses in middle school come Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, but we can look into expanding that program, because it used to be more frequent and it used to be in high schools, and now there’s absolutely no after school busing in high school, where students might want to stay after school, but might not be able to.

ZIPF

Another big question that we see here is that 150 teacher positions got cut in the budget for next year. At the same time, we have policy ideas from you two which would obviously need to be factored into that budget. So what tradeoffs can we make, and what tradeoffs are worth making in pursuing the goal of closing the achievement gap?

AGARWAL

In terms of budgetary priorities, teachers and lower class sizes have been my top priority since I started campaigning. I firmly believe that, even if we have activity buses or expansion of various programs, the teachers are where students truly learn from. So I think that, by advocating for teachers as our top priority, that will help us truly maintain a high level of education.

For tradeoffs, one idea I did have was creating a survey for all teachers with Chromebooks or Promethean Boards and another for teachers who don’t have them—maybe even of students too—to see where they could be most effective. That way, we wouldn’t spend more on stuff like Promethean Boards, but could kind of transfer them to classrooms that need them. I know that one of my teachers, Mr. Hines, is one of my best teachers because he teaches in the traditional manner. He doesn’t need Chromebooks, he doesn’t need a Promethean Board, because he has his own style. We should preserve the teacher’s style of teaching because it’s the unique style that helps a student engage and learn better. So if Mr. Hines could transfer his Chromebooks to another classroom that might use them more effectively, that would help us save money on technology and would basically be a win/win scenario. We should definitely try to limit any wasting of our resources.

GUERCI

I totally agree with Rachit on wasting resources. I think that a big part of that’s transparency—obviously, there was a big scandal last year with the board and their credit card use—and it starts with the board members. I think that the positions that ought to be preserved are the ones that are benefitting us most. We also need to keep in mind what our attendance secretaries do to aid our lives and how much more accessible our principals are to us once they have secretaries because they don’t have to deal with scheduling all day. So, while we do want to prioritize faculty members that are available to us most, I do think we need to preserve what we have in order to move forward.

AGARWAL

There are also ways to expand programs that we have without having to deal with the budget. Two ideas that I have are test prep and lunches.

We all want expansion of test prep programs, especially for low income students. We see that the SAT has a direct correlation with income, so we should expand test prep programs not just by investing money in them, but by creating partnerships with local test preparation companies. At Richard Montgomery, administrators did a great job of basically providing a free practice test, review session, and analysis of students’ weaknesses and strengths all for free. I know a lot of students who participated in that. It was helpful for me, and I know it was helpful for other students as well.

The other example I had was lunches. Local restaurants could help because they would gain awareness, and we would help students get healthier and tastier lunches for sometimes the same cost as a school lunch or a little bit more. Basically, by making partnerships with small businesses and nonprofits, we can definitely expand programs.

For the 2015 SMOB election, the achievement gap constitutes a major campaign point for both candidates.

By Matthew Zipf, Kaamiya Hargis, and Darian Garcia

About The MoCo Student

In 2012, Student Member of the Board of Education John Mannes created a countywide press network to help build a conduit to share fresh and relevant information written by youth to the wider Montgomery County student body.

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