Of Green Zones and Red Zones

Today’s Bethesda Magazine piece on Bethesda’s efforts to get a renovation project for Walter Johnson High School in the County Capital Improvements Program (CIP) breaks open some serious issues for those, like me, who have watched this dance play out for too many years.

Simply put, for those who pay attention to the issue in the County, there is the Green Zone and there is the Red Zone. This vernacular goes back as far as I can remember it, which is a very long time. Green Zone schools like BCC, Whitman, Walter Johnson, and Churchill have much less diversity (racial, ethnic and socio-economic) but always seem to get whatever they holler about.

Red Zone schools (Downcounty Consortium, Northeast Consortium, and the clusters of schools centered around Gaithersburg and north - primarily the Gaithersburg and Watkins Mill clusters) have greater diversity and more challenging student populations.

Today, we hear that the Western Montgomery Citizens Advisory Board is pushing to get Walter Johnson (green zone school, but, intriguingly, right on the border of the Downcounty Consortium) a new addition, because by 2020-2021, it will be at 119% capacity (2745 students with a capacity of 2398). Alluded to, but not stressed enough, is this astonishing fact: Walter Johnson was renovated in 2009. How atrocious did the planning have to be to spend tens of millions of dollars on a school that will be so far over capacity so soon? Way to go, MCPS planners.

Somewhat unbelievably, MCPS seems to be fine with giving Walter Johnson a shot at the CIP, as they’ve hired an architect for a feasibility study and are rushing to finish it before the CIP is submitted.

Hold on there, cowboys. Let’s consider a few other salient facts. All of what I discuss below, like the Bethesda Magazine article, is from Schools at a Glance, this fabulous trove of fun facts about each and every elementary, middle and high school in the county. It’s just chock full of good stuff. But it takes some compiling to really show what’s going on. I’ve done some, not all, of that compiling, but I can state the following with complete confidence.

The five high schools of the Downcounty Consortium, despite constituting 20% of the high schools in the county (five out of 25), currently have over a quarter of the county’s African-American student population and over a third of the Hispanic students. Add in the three schools of the Northeast Consortium and the numbers go up to over half the black students and 45% of the Hispanic students being located in eight high schools.

And by that same 20202-21 time period, four of the five DCC schools will be more overpopulated (by percentage) than Walter Johnson’s 119%. Northwood (last renovated in 1956) and Wheaton (1983) will both be at 128%, while Einstein (1997) will be at 122%. Blair (1998) will be at 110%, but only based on MCPS’ absurdly and patently low projection of an 11% increase in students over the next six years. If Blair (the most popular of the DCC schools by a wide margin) experiences the same average growth projected for the other four DCC schools, it will grow by 21.6% (624 students), and it will be at 120% capacity. The goal of the consortium, as I’ve noted before, was to bring Blair’s population down from 3400 to 2000. It will be over 3500 in six years, I’ll bet you a dollar. So the consortium will have failed spectacularly.

Walter Johnson, by comparison, is projected to have the third highest population growth in the whole county over the next six years, at 23.75%. By comparison, neighboring Green Zone schools will have far smaller population increases: BCC will grow by 1.41%, Churchill by 9.06%, Whitman by 13.3%, and Richard Montgomery by 12.89%. Like they say on Sesame Street, which one of these things just doesn’t belong here?

Compare to the six year population growth of the five DCC schools: Blair 11.07%, Einstein 16.7%, Kennedy 27.17%, Northwood 23.85%, and Wheaton 18.57%. Once again, one of the numbers is way out of whack with the rest.

What these widely disparate growth patterns show is just how much segregation of black and Hispanic students has transpired - out of the Green Zone and into the Red. While the consortiums didn’t succeed in their stated purpose, they sure did a hell of a job drawing a line between Green and Red zones. What these numbers also show is just how much the books get cooked - Walter Johnson gets double the growth rate of its neighboring Green Zone schools to exaggerate its overcapacity, while Blair gets half the growth rate of its neighboring Red Zone schools to play down how far over capacity the largest school in the County will be in six years.

That dollar I bet on Blair being over 3500? I’ll bet you double or nothing on it that WJ doesn’t come close to growing by 24%.

Given the recent history of MCPS student population growth projections, why should anyone trust what MCPS says when the numbers are this suspicious ON PAPER? What might we find when we dig in deeper? And the broader history is worse - pretty much every projection upon which MCPS has based its decision-making has been wrong. In 1984, MCPS closed Northwood High School because there was no possible way it would be needed for 50 years. Ten years later, neighboring schools were overcrowded to the breaking point and Northwood reopened in 2004. There are dozens of similar stories I’ve heard and forgotten over the years. We should have precisely zero confidence in anything the school system says regarding population projections.

And to dear, lovely Bethesda: you want an addition to Walter Johnson? Get in line and wait your turn like everyone else. Thanks. Love and kisses from Silver Spring.

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