MCPS conducts audit to examine role of racism in policies


Photo by Jeremy Fredricks.

On Wed., March 16, during advisory, students participated in MCPS’ Antiracist System Audit. Students are taking the audit to help the school system limit bias, discrimination and racism.

By Jeremy Fredricks, Editor-in-Chief

“Race and racism were built into our system from the very beginning,” John Landesman, the Executive Director of MCPS’ Office of Strategic Initiatives, said. 

MCPS was founded in 1860 for white students only; segregated schools for Black students began in 1872. It would take an additional 35 years for the modern-day equivalent of high schools to be established for Black students, compared to white students who got theirs in 1892. While the system has been integrated for decades, students of color — particularly Black ones — are still not on an even playing field with their white counterparts, according to MCPS’ own data.

Integration of Black students in MCPS began in the 1950s, following the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, and was complete the next decade. Bill Offutt began teaching at Leland Junior High School in 1955, the first year of integration in MCPS, and is also the author of “Bethesda: A Social History.” He remembers that there “weren’t more than a dozen Black kids” at the school when he started. 

“It was standard and rampant and an expected part of life,” Offutt said about racism in the 1950s. “Integration went smoothly and quickly. We had a good superintendent at the time and a bunch of good administrators, as well as helpful school board.”

In the 65 years since, some things have gotten better, but there is still work that needs to be done. Past research from MCPS shows a higher percentage of white and Asian students meeting benchmark performance levels for standardized testing than Black and Hispanic students. There is a disproportionate percentage of Black and Hispanic students — who make up 54 percent of the system — suspended, behind grade level and in the Free and Reduce Meals (FARMS) Program.

“We have racial disparities across the board. We’ve always had racial disparities in MCPS,” Landesman said. “We’re looking at policy and practices. We’re not saying that people are doing things because they’re racist. But do we have the right policies…that’s what we’re looking at.”

George Floyd’s death in 2020 sparked a series of questions about the roles that racism and systemic oppression play in everyday life. Many school systems are tackling the issue, including MCPS and its Antiracist System Audit, which officials hope will expose inequalities that the system can improve on. The audit will focus on six key areas: the curriculum, workplace diversity, workplace conditions, equity achievement, community relationships and school culture. 

“The audit itself has been going on for a year…to evaluate and look into how our practices and policies are doing and, in this case, how are they impacting, how are they connecting, to racial disparities,” Landesman said. “For years we’ve been working on how do we become more equitable, how do we become more culturally responsive? This is the first time we’re looking comprehensively at our practices and our policies.”

In July 2020, MCPS Superintendent Dr. Monfia McKnight, who was in the Deputy position at the time, announced the creation of the Antiracist System Audit. MCPS hired the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium (MAEC) to run the survey. The Bethesda, Md.-based group has a history of fighting for equity in education and consulting with leaders to close the achievement gap.

Landesman said MAEC began reviewing the system’s policies in January 2021 and conducted an equity survey with Central Office staff that spring, before developing questions for the survey with community feedback. Once the questions were ready, MCPS sent out surveys for staff, parents/guardians and students to complete by the end of March. 

“In addition, we’ve been doing some community conversations where MAEC…has been gathering data by putting people in small groups and asking them some questions,” Landsman said. “And then over the next months, there’ll be carrying out 30 focus groups.”

MAEC will use the information from the community conversation, alongside the triangulated data from the audit, to find common themes. Those themes will be a part of their report to the community, which is now expected to be released in July; MCPS had previously expected it to be out by June. Policies will then be crafted after the report’s release.

“People say that, when things like this have been done in the past, nothing actually came out of it,” Landesman said. “Instead of jumping into quick action, we want to make sure that we are engaging the community — students, staff, families — in really working on it together, unpacking the data together, making meaning of it, prioritizing what the issues are and then working together to figure out what those actions look like.”

“Accountability measures” are being put in place by the school system, according to Landesman, to ensure that policies will be put in place. MCPS will put audit-related information online, connect with outside organizations and bring in community members for policy drafting and implementation.

“What’s happened in a lot of big systems and other places, we do audits, we do surveys, we create very quick action steps, but those action steps aren’t really that meaningful,” Landesman said. “Then those groups [of students, families and staff that will comb through the data and suggest actions in consultation] continue to make sure they’re holding leadership accountable…the community is involved in the development of what happens next.”

Opponents of the audit have said that it is too costly, takes money away from other resources and promotes critical race theory or an “anti-white” agenda. Landesman pushed back against these claims, saying that MAEC’s $454,680 contract came from the system’s operating budget and makes up a fraction of this fiscal year’s overall budget ($2.78 billion). MCPS has also continued to say that the audit is not about “pointing fingers” and making groups feel bad, but instead lifting others up.

Offutt says that when integration plans were discussed in the 1950s, there were some who opposed the move, but most were accepting. He thinks there could be a similar trajectory with the policy implementation after the audit is released — some opposition, but support from most of the community.

“There were people out there in the county who thought it would take a long time to integrate schools,” Offutt said. “Most people knew [integration] wasn’t going to cause trouble and it didn’t. Out in Poolesville, there might have been a little trouble, protests or people howling of various kinds, but in general, it went smoothly.”

Landesman is “cautiously optimistic” that the results of the audit will lead to meaningful changes for a school system with a history of treating students of color differently than their white counterparts. 

“I think we have real potential. We have a lot of people that want to do the work. We have a lot of smart people,” Landesman said. “We just need to make sure we continue putting in the structures with what we started. I’m optimistic that we are going to, but…like everybody else, we have to see it happen.”