Journey to Kindergarten, Part 5

This is the fifth part of a series documenting the steps one family is taking to prepare for their son’s entrance into kindergarten next year. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here

by Gail Z.

20160406_080252 (1)It’s official. Summer is here, and now that we’ve celebrated my son’s graduation from preschool, we’re starting to prepare for the school year. And now that we know where he’ll go to school, I thought that it would be a good time to share how we arrived at our decision.

In part four of this series, I wrote about our visit to the school on the other side of our neighborhood, and how impressed we were. Not long after, we finally got word that our neighborhood school was offering new kindergarten families a tour of the school. We were encouraged to bring our son along, but we opted not to because we didn’t want to get him excited about a school he might not attend.

On the day of the visit, I had an open mind and was very interested in learning about the school. The principal apologized to those of us to whom she hadn’t been responsive. I appreciated that. During the tour we later learned that her delayed responses were due to PARCC testing.

Much like the tour at the “other” school, we walked from class to class and were able to peek in at what was going on in each room. At both schools, we were told and could see all that is offered to students. But here, something was different. Maybe it was the excitement in the principal’s voice, or that there’s a poetry slam night, during which students perform. Maybe it was the retired art teacher who returned to the district and was now at this school just to ensure that students could experience art class on a bi-weekly basis, or that the students had created musical instruments for a project. Maybe it had something to do with the tone the principal took with the children she encountered in the halls, ensuring that the boys’ shirts were tucked in, thanking them for good behavior, and offering them bucks as a reward. Whatever it was, it felt like a good place for my child to be.

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Gardening at School: How We Made It Work

by Ingrid Cowan Hass
IMG_6547A few years ago parents of the PTA at our neighborhood elementary school started talking about adding some landscaping to the school grounds. The principal liked the idea of a pollinator garden in front of the school. There was also an abandoned courtyard garden that had been started with a grant by a teacher who was no longer at the school. We wondered if that could be revived.

The project began with just a few parents weeding over a period of time. Then, last spring, we created two garden beds out of the mound of grass and weeds surrounding the flagpoles in front of the school. We communicated with the school building manager about our plans. His schedule didn’t allow him to do more than mow the grass, so he was thrilled to have the extra help. We met with the principal, talked about the placement, and got approval to put up cedar edging to hold the earth and mulch. I weeded the existing raised beds in the courtyard and collaborated with a teacher about planting some lettuce and kale with her classes. We uncovered strawberries that we replanted with new compost. With the extra care, the strawberries produced a bumper crop!

IMG_8235I started taking a small bucket and gloves to school every day and weeding during drop-off and pick-up for 10 minutes. This generated conversation, awareness, and new volunteers among the other parents. We asked for parents to bring in flowering perennials from their gardens to plant in the new bed. Some dads brought mulch in their trucks. We visited a few other schools that had gardens to learn about what they were doing.

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Free University Courses Through Dual Enrollment Program

by Beth McCracken-Harness

When you are thinking about what your teenagers will do over the summer, you might consider a concurrent enrollment class at University of Maryland, College Park. This opportunity is open to talented high school seniors.

My son took courses there in history and PE over the summer, earning an A- and an A. He just got accepted to the University of Maryland, and I think that having previously taken courses there helped.

These courses were paid for by Prince George’s County Public Schools, through the Dual Enrollment Program. Tuition at any public Maryland college is fully covered by PGCPS, and fees and textbooks are also covered for those students who qualify for free and reduced meals. This month, PGCPS is hosting two information sessions for the Dual Enrollment Program.

To enroll in a UMD course, my son had to apply to the university under their concurrent enrollment program for high school students. (That was good practice for applying to colleges in his senior year.) The process was more complicated than taking a course at Prince George’s Community College, but it was well worth it.

To do this:

1) Register for the Dual Enrollment Program through PGCPS: http://www1.pgcps.org/dualenrollment/

For more information, speak with your professional school counselor, or email the PGCPS Dual Enrollment office at dual.enrollment@pgcps.org.

2) Enroll at the University of Maryland, College Park under their concurrent enrollment program for high school students:
http://admissions.umd.edu/requirements/SpecialAudiences.php

The deadline to apply for the summer session is May 1. The application is processed through the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and may take up to six weeks. For additional information, contact: um-admit@umd.edu.

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One Parent’s Efforts to Bring Salad Bars to PG Schools

by Kate McElhenny

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and various corporate sponsors are working together to bring salad bars to school cafeterias across the country in support of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative.

Several studies have shown that school children, given access to a salad bar at school, will consume more fruits and vegetables in their day and in a greater variety.

Saira Khan, a PGCPS parent (holding a PhD in nutrition), came across this broad public and private partnership and saw no reason why it could not and should not be implemented in her children’s schools, and in the Prince George’s County School District at large.

After a few weeks of discussing the matter with fellow Parkdale parents, students and teachers, Saira had inspired many of them to meet with a representative of the PGCPS Food Services Department to request sponsorship of this salad bar grant.  The application for this grant can only be submitted by the Food Services Director of a School District.

Despite over four thousand salad bars having already been donated through this program, some as near as the Montgomery County and Anne Arundel County School Districts, the initial meeting did not end with the hoped for sponsorship.  Instead, the enthusiastic group was met with questions and concerns.

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What’s Working: Great Teaching in Second Grade

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

My son is enjoying his second grade year so far, and I am impressed with the learning that is happening in his class. Here are some instructional practices that seem to be working well:

Spelling pretests and posttests. There are no spelling groups in my son’s class (when I was that age, we had the “green apple group” and the “red apple group”), but there is certainly differentiated instruction. Instead of being grouped by ability, children are given a pretest each Monday on ten spelling words. Students who can spell at least eight of those words correctly are given a list of more challenging words to study that week (called the “star” list), while the rest of the class sticks with the original list (the “smile” list). This means that there is no rigid differentiation between good spellers and not-so-good spellers: A child might be on the “smile” list one week and the “star” list the next.

Moreover, the spelling lists for the upcoming week are included in the weekly newsletter, which is emailed to parents on Friday. This lets my son study the easier words before he takes his pretest on Monday so that he can be on the star list that week. This is his choice, not mine! Spelling has always been a struggle for him, and being assigned the challenging words after a successful pretest seems to be a big confidence booster.

Flexible spelling assignments. Each week, students choose three spelling activities from a list of nine and turn them in at the end of the week. There is a wide range of options (they change from week to week), and students are explicitly given permission to replace any of the activities with something else that is not on the list. Some of the activities are quick and fun (e.g. writing your speling words on your parent’s back with your finger) and some are more arduous (e.g. writing down the dictionary definitions). We always do a practice test as one of the three activities, whether or not it is on the list of options for that week.

img116_readingLog

What day did he actually read Bunnicula? Who knows? But he is writing about books, and that’s what matters.

Flexible reading log. I have a hard time with reading logs. Though I understand that they are supposed to promote daily reading, I can’t stand the thought of timing one’s reading and keeping a record, as if reading is a chore to be endured. But the reading logs that my son completes each week are flexible enough that we can adapt them to our read-for-pleasure-with-abandon lifestyle.

  • For each day (Monday through Friday), there is a space for students to fill in the number of minutes that they’ve read, but we don’t keep track. My son just writes “20” for each day, though he usually reads for much longer.
  • He has to write one sentence per day on what he’s read, but the sentence can be anything at all, as long as it says something about the book. This really helps. My son needs practice writing sentences about what he reads, but at this point, he doesn’t need something overly prescriptive.
  • And here’s what really makes the reading log doable for us: We don’t worry about filling in the chart every day. My son does most of his reading before bedtime, and it would be extremely disruptive to have him fill out his reading log just before bed. Besides, reading is pure fun for him, and I don’t want the reading log — a task that he does not enjoy — to intrude on that experience. So he sometimes writes a week’s worth of sentences in one day. He still gets practice writing sentences about what he reads, but its not really a daily log anymore after we’re done with it. And that works better for us.

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Sixth Grader Excited about Composting, Gardening, and Recycling at School

Berwyn Heights Elementary has been certified as a green school by the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE). One student member of the school’s environmental club wrote about how Berwyn Heights Elementary runs a successful composting and gardening program.

Hi, I’m Zada and I’m in 6th grade at Berwyn Heights Elementary School in Prince George’s County. I’m a member of the school’s environmental club for the second year now. In the environmental club we do many activities. Some things we do are composting, recycling, and trying to be as green as possible!

Composting was the main thing we did. We would compost every week last year. This year we have buckets for compost in the lunchroom and outside classrooms. Every day some sixth graders, including me, collect the buckets from the cafeteria and classrooms and empty the compost. It is later dumped into a larger compost bin that is located outside of our school. In the compost we put in greens and browns. Greens are things like apple cores, banana peels, orange peels, coffee grounds, egg shells, and salad without dressing, cheese or meat. Browns are things like leaves, grass clippings, and hay. Meat, cheese, dressing, and large sticks and twigs cannot be composted. The ratio is every bucket of greens needs three buckets of browns.

When we began composting last year, we only collected food scraps from breakfast. It took us a long time to fill our large compost bin outside. When we finally filled it, we mixed it up really well and then let it “cook.” While it “cooked” (which was really just sitting there breaking down), we took the temperature of it a few times a week. When it was really breaking down the temperatures got as high as 130 degrees! Once during the cooking process, we pulled everything out, mixed it again and then put it back in the bin.

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The Best Thing About the First Week of School . . .

Ten Prince George’s County parents have shared with us something that a teacher, principal, or other staff member did to make the first day or week of school successful.

  • 100_3395crMy son’s teacher sent home a letter on the first day of school introducing herself and briefly telling us what to expect in the coming school year. The letter was full of warmth and enthusiasm, and I immediately felt that she was drawing me in as a participant in the class.
  • I was very happy our school organized a back-to-school event before the school year started. It is a great way to take care of some practical issues and ask questions before the often chaotic first day of school. I feel like everyone is more prepared for the year from day one.
  • My son attends a school for kids with severe disabilities that is very far from our neighborhood school. One of the children on his bus has a very hard time on the bus. The second day of the trip, I noticed the aide on his bus had brought a soft blanket with her to help the other girl feel more comfortable when she got on the bus. How sweet is that?
  • It’s so nice to walk into school in the morning and see all of the teachers at their classroom doors, smiling and greeting students! We appreciate the warm welcome.
  • My son’s second grade teacher put together a binder with tabs to keep all paperwork organized. It’s very straight forward. We also signed up for text messages from the teacher.
  • Our first day of school started off on a very positive note thanks to our children’s new bus driver. He greeted us and our children with a smile and seemed genuinely happy to be seeing children off to their first day of school. It set the tone for the rest of the day. Bus drivers are often seen as nothing more than chauffeurs, but a good bus driver can make a huge difference for kids. Continue reading

Ten Things We Love About PGCPS

arby Genevieve Demos Kelley

IMG_6342There are plenty of things to appreciate about Prince George’s County Public Schools. Here are ten of them:

1. Dedicated Staff

We have benefited from some truly remarkable, inspiring teachers and visionary, hard-working principals who really are making a difference. One parent writes, “If I go to our school at 7 am, there is staff there (school starts at 9:15). When I go there at 7 pm, there is staff there. Lots of staff are leading many extracurricular activities, there is always something going on at the school.”

2. Strong Instrumental Music Programs

Beginning in grade four, elementary school students may learn to play a string, woodwind, or brass instrument in twice-weekly classes. Instrumental music is also offered to middle and high schoolers. Here is a lovely YouTube video of the PGCPS Honor Band and Middle School Honor Chorus.

3. Career Academies and Specialty Programs

The list of career academies offered in PGCPS high schools was recently expanded in the 2014-2015 school year. It’s an impressive list! PGCPS also offers Creative and Performing Arts and STEM magnet programs.

4. Dual Enrollment

Students may enroll at any public college or university in Maryland while still enrolled in high school and have their tuition paid for by PGCPS. Read more here.

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PGCPS Administration Suspends MUST Exams for Coming School Year

Teachers who have complained about too much standardized testing received a welcome announcement today. In a memorandum dated June 23, Deputy Superintendent Shawn Joseph announced that students would no longer be required to take Mandatory Unit Systemic 100_3401Tests (MUST) assessments. (See the full memorandum at the end of the post.)

Previously, both reading and mathematics MUST exams were administered at least twice during the school year to students, beginning in third grade and continuing through high school. (See one local middle school’s testing calendar here.) The recommendation to eliminate MUST tests came from the Assessment Cross-Functional Team, a team that was established by PGCPS to find ways to  reduce the amount of county-mandated standardized testing.

This announcement comes on the heels of last month’s decision by the PARCC Governing Board to reduce test time and consolidate testing windows. In the last legislative session, the Maryland General Assembly approved a commission to review Maryland’s standardized testing system.

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Styrofoam Trays on the Way Out for PGCPS Cafeterias

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

This post has been updated to reflect current information on the phasing in of new five-compartment lunch trays.

IMG_6485Products made from polystyrene (the material we typically refer to as Styrofoam) will be phased out of use in PGCPS cafeterias during the 2015-2016 school year. A recent Washington Post article noted the efforts of Montgomery County and D.C. schools to use more sustainable cafeteria products: Montgomery County has already abandoned the use of polystyrene lunch trays and D.C. uses reusable trays as well as compostable trays. While PGCPS was not mentioned in the Post article, according to the school system’s Department of Food and Nutrition Services, we will see a shift away from polystyrene products used in cafeterias in the coming months.

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