It started with the overflowing trash cans, the cracked and crumbling cement stairs, the rusted basketball hoop without a net, and the heavy growth covering the fence surrounding the cracked tennis courts at Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring.
But those were just the outward signs of problems that include issues with discipline and classroom management, high teacher turnover and a lack of academic rigor for advanced students, says a handful of parents who have been advocating for change at the diverse school.
These parents have been meeting with Principal Richard Rhodes and other Montgomery County Public Schools officials since September, seeking improvements and a culture change. Rhodes did not respond to a request for comment on the parents’ concerns.
While school officials have tackled some of the physical problems in recent weeks, the big issues still remain, the parents say. They note that at least three dozen teachers and administrators have left since 2010. At the beginning of last summer, only one teacher remained in the math department. And scores on state standardized tests show that Sligo ranks second from last of all MCPS middle schools.
The results of a 2011-2012 school environment survey filled out by 32 percent of staff are telling. Seventy-six percent of respondents disagreed that Sligo students “behave in an orderly manner.” Nearly 67 percent disagreed that “staff members consistently enforce school rules.” Nearly 74 percent disagreed that “staff morale is positive in this school.” And nearly 53 percent said the school leadership did not support them in student discipline matters.
When asked to grade their school, nearly 61 percent of the 256 students who responded gave Sligo a “C” or “D.” By contrast, 83 percent of the 832 responding students at Bethesda’s Thomas W. Pyle Middle School gave their school an “A” or “B.”
“We want to see improvements,” said Melissa Polito, the mother of a Sligo seventh-grader and one of the Silver Spring parents who have been meeting with school officials.
“We want to make sure our school has the necessary resources and is managed well,” added Alice Witt, another member of the group and a parent of a seventh-grader.
Although Rhodes did not respond to a request to talk, his October message on the school’s website spoke of “much that has changed at Sligo this year,” resulting in “a positive energy in the air that reflects the mindset and behavior of students, staff and parents.”
Rhodes wrote that the school is focused on engaging students, staff and parents in “school improvement efforts with the primary aim of ensuring that all students learn and achieve.”
Improvement goals “continue to focus on increased literacy, enhanced mathematics, and improved school climate. We seek to do this by emphasizing critical thinking across content areas and collaborating to build positive relationship amongst stakeholders. Teachers are planning and delivering rigorous and engaging lessons that utilize questioning techniques to encourage student discourse in order to challenge and expand student thinking,” he wrote.
The parents disagree with Rhodes’ assessment. They want to see better enforcement of discipline and ability-grouping for advanced students who aren’t being challenged in classes, especially in science and social studies.
The calls for change at Sligo are similar to those made last June by a group of parents at Newport Mill Middle School in Kensington. Those parents also were concerned about discipline issues and a lack of academic rigor at their school. After meeting with several of them last summer, Newport Mill officials agreed to offer advanced English classes based on student “performance.”
At Newport Mill and now Sligo, parents say that the issues boil down to a simple concept: making sure there is equity for all MCPS students.
Or as Sligo parent Sallie Buck of Silver Spring puts it: “Everybody gets the same dish of vanilla ice cream.”