Middle School Talented and Gifted Programs Need Improvement

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The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

by Khadija Bowen

My daughter wakes up at 6:30 every morning. She gets herself ready for school but she does not have to do much, because she has to wear a uniform — plain khaki pants and plain green polo shirt. She cannot make her hair fancy because the school dress code says headbands and other accessories that make her an individual are strictly prohibited. Before she runs out of the house, she grabs her mesh backpack and goes to her bus stop at 7:45. This school only allows clear or mesh backpacks for the children’s own protection. On her hour-and-a-half long bus ride, she must wear ear phones and play music to drown out the chaos and drama around her.

She hopes there will not be a fight, but she cannot tell because of all the noise and horseplay that is happening around her. She gets to school and keeps her head down because that was the advice she was given from older friends that also attended this school. “Keep your head down, try to ignore the drama and stay close to a few good friends,” they told her. Even though there are cameras everywhere, watching their every movement, somehow violence is still prevalent and random locker searches are still necessary. So she continues to follow the instructions and walk to her class hoping there will not be any drama today, but she has lost confidence that this advice will prove useful.

She used to be confident that her inside knowledge was key to navigating the hallways and common areas at this school, but that was prior to her good friend being trampled during an altercation that she was not a part of. Her friend was sent home from school and needed medical attention due to the incident. The young girl returned to school the next day with a boot on her foot. My daughter and her friends followed the instructions but my daughter’s friend still got hurt. Now my daughter wonders, “Will I be next?”

Today, she gets to her classes unscathed, but she is only partially stimulated because either she has a substitute or her teachers are so burnt out that they have lost the enthusiasm to develop stimulating lesson plans. She has had a substitute in English for most of the year, so she knows there won’t be much to do in that class, but she focuses on the instruction as much as she can and completes whatever she is tasked to do. In the past, math has been so unengaging that she and her friends paint their nails or just have side conversations to get through that class period. Finally, the day is nearly complete. After the last bell rings, she finds her iPod again, puts in her earphones, and prepares herself for the hour-and-a-half ride home.

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Protecting Due Process for Prince George’s County Teachers

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The author is an employee of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) who wishes to remain anonymous. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

The past few years have certainly been traumatic for Prince George’s County Public Schools.. Educators, parents, and students in PGCPS have had to weather storm after storm after storm. For most of the issues that have come across the public’s attention, there are parallels with other school districts. Yet there is one issue that in its scope is truly unique to Prince George’s County Public Schools: the placement of hundreds of its staff on administrative leave, often for months at a time, during the 2016-2017 school year.

It is difficult to find another district that had an administrative leave crisis like this one. In 2014,the Baltimore Sun reported leave statistics for some other districts in the region, with Baltimore County taking the lead at 230 employees on leave in a year at a district similar in size to PGCPS. Most recently, Providence Public School District in Rhode Island had a spike in administrative leave cases this year involving new reporting requirements. However, the district revised its policy by the middle of December, as it was quick to recognize the inherent problem in having too many teachers on leave.

In the case of Prince George’s County, a whole school year went by and local news outlets had to run several stories before district leaders would even acknowledge that there was a problem. In fact, a June 1, 2017 release from PGCPS defended the district’s handling of the situation, saying “No price is too high for a child’s well-being.”

It’s an interesting statement, considering the thousands of students whose academic well-being were harmed by the sudden departure of their highly qualified teachers, often for weeks or months at a time. Not only did the leave situation cost the district almost $10 million, it also did serious damage to the academic progress of students in all grades. Substitute teachers work hard in challenging circumstances, but they are not paid to be the full-time professionals that are expected to be there to serve the students of Prince George’s County.

There have been varying reports of the number of teachers on leave in 2016-2017.  The Washington Post reported the number to be in the range of 400 to 500 out of over 800 total employees placed on leave.  Recently, the Prince George’s County Education Association (PGCEA) has stated in its communicationsthat over 600 teachers were placed on leave that year. If we take the PGCEA figure, multiply that by five instructional hours in a day, and then multiply that figure by a ballpark estimate of 50 instructional days lost per teacher on leave, the product is 75,000 hours of lost instruction by certified teachers. The impact is then multiplied by the number of students affected. While many elementary school teachers are in self-contained classrooms, PGCPS often has students in upper elementary grades go to different teachers for different subjects, and teachers at this level often interact with 50 or more students on a daily basis. Middle and high school teachers frequently teach six classes, with their impact reaching well over a hundred students.

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Prince George’s Schools Leaders Must Be Accountable to Voters, Not Politicians

Image 2-20-16 at 4.28 PMThe following is written testimony presented to the Prince George’s County Delegation of the Maryland General ASsembly. Lori Morrow is a current member of the PGCPS Board of Education Parent and Community Advisory Council mentioned on Page 17 of the House Bill 1107 (HB 1107) Final Report. All opinions expressed in this testimony are the author’s own.

by Lori Morrow

I submit this testimony in support of bill PG 509-18, to restore the Board of Education’s authority to select its own chair and vice chair and appoint the CEO. In addition, I support the repeal of HB1107 and the return to an elected school board in Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) via bill PG 511-18.

I have reviewed the House Bill 1107 Final Report, and do not discount the many programs and initiatives that have been implemented in PGCPS these past few years. Unfortunately the positives have been significantly overshadowed by the challenges: the loss of the Head Start grant; the Judge Sylvania Woods incident; the subsequent administrative leave debacle; and the graduation rate audits. The report does not provide adequate support to show that the current governance structure has had a positive impact on PGCPS. Instead I have heard the exact opposite from many parents and community members. There is an overwhelming sense that the system is failing in terms of transparency and accountability because PGCPS leadership is responsible to county politicians instead of residents.

Regardless of original intention, the current structure and concentration of power in the office of the county executive serves as a political distraction that prevents our system from moving forward. Board members who were appointed or elected with the support of the county executive are viewed as beholden to the county government and not fully trusted. Board members elected without the support of the county executive are labeled as rebels or dissidents, and marginalized in the operations of the school board. In either case, the power of the individual county residents has been diluted.

The June 2017 resignation letter submitted by Dr. Beverly Anderson, an appointed member of the Board of Education, reflected many of my own observations: “We have a dysfunctional board possibly because too many of the members are compromised or have conflicts of interest; an angry student body because we have not figured out how to incorporate some of their good ideas into our practices; unhappy parents because we do not solve in an efficient manner classroom or administrative problems impacting their children; and an apathetic teaching force. This scenario must change!”

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Largo Parent Asks Board to Approve Online Credit Recovery Program

Candace Leach, president of the Largo High School PTSA, made the following statement during the public comments portion of the December 19 Prince George’s County Board of Education meeting. She has given us permission to print it here. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

Good evening Board.

My name is Candace Leach, and I am the Largo High School PTSA President. I have had two children to graduate from Largo, in 2016 and 2017. I currently have one scholar attending Largo, slated to graduate in 2020. I want to take a moment to re-introduce Largo High School to you. Where we are a school that strives for academic and athletic excellence, the atmosphere throughout our building can simply be described as “Family,” and with every family, the support system for our scholars continues to amaze me day by day, week by week, and month by month.

I stand before you today, to urge you to approve the online credit recovery program. As you ponder your decision, consider what happens to our Prince George’s County Public School scholars that can’t afford the $480.00 for evening high school. Consider how having an after school online credit recovery program can aid in keeping the dropout rates down, while encouraging our scholars to “catch up” and graduate on time. With no safety net for our scholars, how do you explain in good conscience that you voted with the best interest of these scholars in mind?

When we look across the state, other jurisdictions have some type of credit recovery program. Also keep in mind, failure is also a part of the learning process. It’s not about getting it right the first time, but about having the will to keep trying until you succeed. With an affordable option, such as the current $150.00 for the credit recovery program, it gives each and every scholar an option to work on learning the content or standards of the course, so that they can continue to fulfill the requirements of the Maryland State diploma.

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Ten Things PGCPS Can Do to Rebuild Community Confidence

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by Lori Morrow

This past weekend I read the graduation rate audit report from Alvarez & Marsal. Unfortunately I was not surprised by the findings. Over the past 9+ years, I’ve noticed a disconnect between Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) leadership/central offices and the way individual schools operate on a daily basis.

I suspect that any PGCPS parent could provide anecdotes about inconsistent policy and procedure compliance at the school level — from issues like withholding elementary school recess as punishment and discrepancies in meeting volunteer/visitor requirements, to inconsistencies in grading procedures or the abuse incidents in recent years. While the report did not find system-wide fraud, I believe we need a system-wide solution to balancing effective policies and procedures without drowning staff in processes and paperwork.

Earlier this week I wrote a list of things that I believe parents/guardians should do. Parents own a piece of the issues identified in the audit if they aren’t paying attention to grades and attendance, if they ask to have their child promoted when they shouldn’t be, or if they are focused just on the diploma instead of the education. Sadly what I often hear from parents and teachers is that it doesn’t matter what we do because we are powerless to change PGCPS. I spend too much time attending PGCPS events and meetings to accept that there is nothing we can do.

Here are my suggestions for ways PGCPS can partner with parents and staff to help rebuild trust and confidence in our school system:

  1. Host forums like last year’s “Community Summit on Safety & Accountability” to involve the community in identifying problems and searching for solutions.
  2. Involve PTA/PTO leaders in reviewing climate survey results at the school level so that they can assist in resolving ongoing concerns.
  3. Add an item to parent and teacher climate surveys that asks about staff adherence to policies and procedures.
  4. Implement new Administrative Procedures in the spring or beginning of the summer (instead of right before school starts) so that principals and central offices are thoroughly prepared to communicate them to parents and teachers by Back-to-School Night.
  5. Create an interactive video/training module on the Students Rights & Responsibilities Handbook for parents and students that can be posted online and shared at Back-to-School Nights or PTA meetings.
  6. Reach out to the Board of Education Parent and Community Advisory Council to provide feedback on policy and procedure changes.
  7. Host forums with PTA/PTO leaders at least twice during the school year to identify system-wide issues.
  8. Clarify the role of instructional directors as it relates to policy and administrative procedure compliance, and share that information with the community.
  9. Educate the community on the formal process for teachers, students, and parents/guardians who wish to report instances of non-compliance, and ensure that they will not face retaliation.
  10. Above all else, please put aside the politics and make our children’s EDUCATION the priority.

Ten Things Parents Can Do in Response to the PGCPS Graduation Rate Audit

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by Lori Morrow

Here are ten things parents and guardians can do in response to the Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) graduation rate audit:

  1. Read the Executive Summary of the report if you haven’t already, regardless of what grade your child is in.
  2. Read the sections of the Students Rights and Responsibilities Handbook that relate to attendance and graduation requirements (and the rest of it too if you can find the time).
  3. Make sure you are meeting your parent responsibilities by getting your child to school every day.
  4. Set high expectations for your children and provide them the support they need to meet them.
  5. Check grades and attendance regularly in the Schoolmax Family Portal and contact teachers if you see any errors/discrepancies.
  6. Attend parent teacher conferences to understand how your child is doing in school.
  7. Ask teachers and guidance counselors about graduation requirements that you don’t understand.
  8. Keep your own file (hardcopy or digital) of documentation for credit make-up work and Service Learning Hours.
  9. If you find that procedures are not being followed, bring that to the attention of someone at a higher level (whether that is the principal, the Instructional Director, the Ombudsman, the CEO or the Board of Education).
  10. If you see a better way to do things, bring that to the attention of someone as well. We can ALL find solutions.

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More Than a Statistic: Observations from a PGCPS Employee on Administrative Leave

IMG_6404The author is an employee of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) who wishes to remain anonymous. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

Over recent months, media attention has focused on what employees of Prince George’s County have known for a long time: the problem of having too many school staff on administrative leave. According to the Washington Post, as of June 6, there were 142 teachers and 91 other employees off the job.

I am part of that statistic.

I will share part of my story. Of course, there are very strict limits to what I can share. However, with the massive number of employees who have gone through what I am experiencing, it is important for policy makers and the public to know the issue from the perspective of someone in my position.

First, some perspective on the known statistics:

There were 848 PGCPS employees placed on administrative leave this year. That means 4.24%, or about one out of every twenty-four PGCPS employees were paid for days, weeks, or even months to not be at work serving the children of Prince George’s County. To put this in perspective, if students were absent at that rate, many of our schools would not meet their own student attendance targets.

There were some cases where the wrongdoing was real. Of the 615 cases that have been resolved, 196 resulted in a reprimand, suspension, retirement, resignation, or termination. Another 170 or so resulted in a letter of professional counsel. In all, violations of PGCPS policy were found in about 60% of the cases, but only about 10% of the cases rose to the level of requiring the employee leave the school system permanently. 

From my perspective, based on past results and not on the merits of my case, I have a 10% chance of needing to search for a new job. I have about a 50% chance of having done something wrong while still keeping my job, but was it really worth having me out of the classroom to determine this? I have about a 40% chance of being completely cleared, in which case my time removed from the classroom has been completely worthless to me and detrimental to the education of the students I serve.

The logic of having the staff member removed from the schools during the investigation is that the employee may interfere with the investigation. This makes sense when an investigation is done in an expeditious manner. The interruption will only last for a few days, and if there is no fault found or only enough fault to warrant a reprimand or letter of counsel, the employee can return to duty in a timely manner.

However, when there is a known backlog of cases and it is widely understood by all parties that the process can take weeks or months, this brings into question whether the use of administrative leave has been misapplied. Certainly, it was necessary in at least 10% of the cases. But what about the other 90%? Was it truly helpful to have the employee off the job for that length of time? What could have been done differently so instruction or other important services were not interrupted or diminished?

Good teachers know that if you are going to crack down on a problem behavior, you have to plan for a timely and efficient enforcement of your class rules. Otherwise, you are not going to be respected by the students, especially those who are trying to do their best and feel like they have all been collectively thrown into a toxic pool of suspicion because of the bad behavior of a few. Why, then, did PGCPS not use that same logic and realize that if they were going to have more reporting of suspected misconduct, they needed to be prepared to handle the increased caseload?

Again, I can’t give details about the nature of my case, but the nature of how the process has been handled is very instructive. When I was put on administrative leave, I was given a vague verbal explanation of the allegations. To this date, I have nothing in writing stating the nature of the allegations. I was told not to have any contact with colleagues, students, or parents and to remain off PGCPS property until advised otherwise.

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