Newport Mill Middle School in Kensington. Photo courtesy of Montgomery County Public Schools

Nearly three dozen parents at Newport Mill Middle School in Kensington say they’ve had enough. They’re frustrated by the lack of academic rigor at the school and tired of worrying about whether their kids are in a safe environment at the diverse school.

Thirty-five parents signed a letter sent on Friday to Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr requesting “a concrete plan of action by July 1” to address issues at Newport Mill.

In the letter, the parents said that the school is not offering the same level of rigor for all of its students that many had received at their elementary schools. The parents also wrote that “we expect and demand a safe learning environment. However, safety is currently not a high priority for the administration at Newport.”

MCPS spokesman Dana Tofig said in an email that Starr “will certainly make sure” that the concerns are investigated, and wouldn’t comment until officials have first responded to parents.

For six months, these parents, mostly of sixth-graders, have been asking schools officials to provide all students with a rigorous curriculum based on flexible ability grouping. They also want schools officials to provide a consistent disciplinary policy so that teachers can control their classrooms.

At Newport Mill, all students are “placed in ‘advanced’ classes except for math,” the letter said. “It is unrealistic to expect that, given the wide gaps in ability and interest levels, teachers can effectively advance all students in the current classroom structure.”

In addition, “the absence of student discipline makes the goal of simultaneously teaching advanced, on-grade and below-grade levels students unrealistic,” the letter said.  It cites classroom behavior including “kids piercing their ears, breaking shelves and using profanity—at the teacher, all without consequence.”

The letter was sent after about 60 parents attended a school meeting Thursday night for a meeting facilitated by staff from the Montgomery County Public Schools’ Department of Family and Community Partnerships.

The meeting was set up by Principal Penny Tsonis so parents could air concerns and suggestions for improvement outside the presence of school officials. Their feedback was expected to be provided to the school leadership to be considered in school improvement plans.

But that approach failed to appease parents, according to several of those who attended.

John Cummings, a parent of two sixth-graders who was asked to speak on behalf of the concerned parents, said that the group supports the school’s diversity and doesn’t understand why Newport Mill can’t meet the academic needs of all students, as is done at its feeder elementary schools and at Albert Einstein, the cluster’s high school.

“Many of us now feel we are caught between having to make the decision between diversity and rigor. We should have the opportunity to have both in the same school,” he said Friday. “There’s no reason our kids should get shortchanged on a truly rigorous program.”

A February letter from Tsonis to sixth-grade parents says it is the school’s goal “to provide the highest level of instruction to all students each day in every classroom” and that all students “are exposed to and are provided access to the Advanced English 6, 7 and 8 curricula.”

“Within heterogeneous classrooms, there may be clusters of students who perform above grade level,” the letter goes on. “It is the expectation that all teachers appropriately differentiate or modify instruction to provide challenging experiences to all students.”

The letter also says that after reviewing student work and speaking with teachers, “we recognize that further differentiation, especially of process and product, is needed in the Advanced English 6 classes.” Tsonis said her administrative team was monitoring instruction “in all Advanced English classes to ensure all students are challenged and appropriate differentiation is implemented.”

Tofig said that Tsonis asked that Thursday night’s session be held “so all parents could feel free to share their thoughts.” School staff did not attend. A report of the session will be reviewed by school staff as they develop school improvement plans for next year, he said.

The parents’ letter to Starr requests that MCPS develop an action plan by July 1 so that parents of current and incoming students are “able to make appropriate decisions for their children’s education for the coming school year.”

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com