by Llew B.
Make no mistake, parents are having tough conversations about school choices this time of year. It was no different for my family last fall when discussing options for my daughter, who at the time was in 8th grade and beginning her 6th and final year at a parochial school in Bowie. Fast forward to 2016, and we’re a couple of months into her transition to Bowie High School (BHS). I’m writing to share my own thoughts on my daughter’s transition and suggestions for middle school parents and Prince George’s County Public School (PGCPS) officials.
Why We Chose Public
Financial considerations were a primary factor in our decision to transition from private to public high school. Yearly tuition for private high school tends to be substantially higher than it is for the middle grades. A family could easily spend $60K for high school over four years, compared to $30K or more in middle school, over the same time period. Furthermore, our second child would enter high school in my daughter’s junior year, and we assumed there would again be a period of overlap in college.
We engaged in a number of information gathering activities to help us make a more informed decision. To better understand public school options, we investigated specialty programs for highly motivated students (ex. Summit at Bowie High), toured the facility for 9th grade students at BHS, and met with several BHS students and their parents. Our key findings were not surprising. We did not discover a treasure trove of gleaming facilities, but we didmeet staff and parents with similar goals. The students we spoke with described experiences that were fair to positive, and we heard no anecdotes that were cause for alarm.
Last but certainly not least, there was an element of hope for potential improvement in our public schools, over time. Through Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Public Schools (PGCABS) and other venues, I began meeting people interested in public school advocacy, and I interacted with various levels of PGCPS administrators who seemed to welcome outreach from people in the community.
We’re only two months into the high school journey, but my daughter is doing fine. Below I provide comments ranging from the social environment to academics.
High on the list of factors that impact the adjustment to high school is the ease at which a student makes new friends. While the majority of 9th grade students appear to come from the public middle schools that feed into BHS, it appears that a sizeable number of students are new to the area and my daughter has made a number of friends from this pool. Also, school spirit seems to be fairly high from what I gathered while volunteering during homecoming week.
I’m pleased to report that we have had no significant issues with transportation. I’m aware that transportation issues are a major concern for students county-wide.
The environment seems to be safe and orderly. My daughter has stated that in most of her classes, students actively participate and there is minimal disruption to the daily routine.
Academic instruction seems pretty good so far. It appears that my daughter is appropriately challenged by the work, and she speaks favorably about her teachers. However, the teacher in one of her core subjects has been absent more often than not. We have not received communication from the school about the frequent absences or the plan to ensure that my daughter receives consistent, high quality instruction in that subject. I will also note that a couple of teachers spoke about challenges related to budget and facilities during Back to School night. For example, one teacher said that budget cuts severely impacted the supplies she could provide to students during the year.
It is notable that air conditioning was not working in multiple classrooms during the first few days of school, when temperatures outside reached 80 degrees. Air conditioning was repaired, however, on the day that Back to School night activities were held. Also, my daughter found it difficult in the first week to adjust to the large size of the building. For example, she mentioned that it was challenging to find the restrooms nearest her classrooms because she had very little free time in her schedule or between classes to navigate the hallways and learn the layout of the building. These issues resolved over time, yet larger structural issues related to the age of the buildings persist (the main building is over 50 years old).
There have been two Parent Teacher Student Organization (PTSO) meetings thus far, both with modest turnout relative to the size of the 2,000+ student body. In my opinion, the PTSO meetings have been very well organized and informative. For example, at a recent meeting, safety officers and school administrators discussed the response to threats recently spread through social media, and the audience also heard presentations from candidates running for positions on the board of education. It would be awesome to be able to say that I’ve plugged into a network of other parents exchanging ideas about ways to help our students have a successful first year . . . (I’m working on it).
. . . for parents of 8th graders currently weighing options for high school: Take a tour, speak to current students and parents of all schools that you are seriously considering.
. . . for parents of 7th graders: This is the time to be focused and perform well. Applications for admission to specialty programs in public schools are typically due midway through 8th grade. Therefore selection often relies on grades from the entire 7th grade term, and the first quarter of 8th grade. Consider beginning practice for standardized entrance exams this winter. Some programs use questions from previous PSATs. Explore requirements now to determine how best to prepare. You’ll want to avoid cramming in the fall of 8th grade, a time that may introduce stress from applications and essay writing on top of school responsibilities.
. . . for PGCPS administrators:
- Publish comparative facts about student safety. Combat misconceptions and potentially incomplete media coverage with relevant safety metrics and trends which might include suspension rates, or the number of unplanned dispatches of safety officers. Display side by side comparisons comparing safety metrics for PGCPS public schools to similarly sized schools in neighboring school districts. If the data isn’t positive, fix the problems.
- Promote like the privates. Adapt tactics used by private schools to compete for attention each fall. Conduct open houses, and place colorful signs on highly trafficked roads. Establish “shadow day” opportunities where 7th and 8th grade private school students are paired with a high school student for the day.
- Establish a private-to-public cohort program. Support families with 7th and 8th grade students in private school to choose public by enrolling them in cohorts. Following the model used for special programs at high school or college, the cohort program could enroll participants in the fall, convene the cohort in late summer, and support those cohorts through periodic meetings with a cohort coordinator several times during that initial transition year.
- Publish your goals and increase transparency. Publish the number of school-age students living within PGCPS boundaries, not attending a PGCPS school, by grade. Transparency of that metric alongside a description of measurable goals to reduce that number would further demonstrate a commitment to making schools in PGCPS a primary choice.