Nonprofit sues MCPS over changes to middle school magnet program admissions


Greer Vermilye

The AEF sued MCPS on September 1, citing discriminatory admissions practices of middle school magnet programs.

By Lily Freeman

The Association for Education Fairness, a Montgomery County parent coalition, filed a lawsuit against MCPS on September 1, claiming that recent changes to the admissions process for the county’s middle school magnet programs discriminate against Asian students.

The AEF alleges in its complaint that the county modified the magnet programs’ admissions system in 2017 to reduce the number of Asian students in the four programs. The group is requesting that a federal court require MCPS to revert these changes, which include favoring students that go to under-performing schools in the admissions process. The admissions process has also amplified the importance of applicants’ personalities, and tasked the school system with selecting academically-qualified students for the entrance exam, rather than having parents sign up their children. 

MCPS adjusted its admissions procedures after a 2016 report to the school board, which found that magnet programs admitted white and Asian students at higher rates than their Black and Hispanic classmates. 

Magnet programs provide admitted students with accelerated instruction in either humanities or STEM, depending on the school.

Eighth grader Shreya Ohri applied to the Eastern Middle School humanities program in fifth grade, after the entrance process changes first took effect. Ohri, then a student at the magnet program at Chevy Chase Elementary School, had top test scores when she applied to the Eastern magnet program — but the admissions committee initially rejected her.

“That was definitely frustrating, as someone who really wanted to go to Eastern,” Ohri said.

Ohri appealed the decision, after which the admissions team allowed her into the program. Only one other student from Chevy Chase received admission to Eastern without appealing their rejection that year, Ohri said. 

Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill declined to comment, stating that she’s not in a position to discuss litigation issues.

The recent lawsuit isn’t the first complaint about the county’s magnet program admissions. In March 2019, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights began investigating a number of objections from parents about the changes, markedly similar to the Association for Education Fairness’ complaints. The investigation is ongoing; there is no court date as of yet.

Richard Montgomery High School magnet program senior Amy Zhai said she believes the county needs to do more to ensure students have equal opportunities. Zhai, who graduated from Pyle Middle School, is a co-founder of the Asian American Progressive Student Union, an organization made up of many MCPS high school students. 

“For a system as diverse as ours, we really need to focus on how we can expand these academic opportunities to every person who lives in our county,” Zhai said. “A lot of Asian and white students are gaining admission, but a lot of these students obviously don’t have to deal with that racial stereotype of underperforming in class, which affects actual academic performance.”

Harvard University freshman Sophia Weng, a graduate of the Takoma Park Middle School magnet program (‘16), echoed Zhai’s sentiment. Weng said she believes the changes were made with the right intentions, but that they haven’t been effective in ensuring equity within admissions.

“It didn’t actually benefit minority students; it benefited white students who lived in different areas of the county,” Weng said. “We have a long way to go before we can actually change the admissions process to be more fair toward students of color.”