Know Your Rights: How to Advocate for Suspended Students

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by J. Parker

The Prince George’s County school system has been in a state of educational change and growth over the past few months with the new interim CEO. Now, with the addition of new incoming school board members, there is a renewed sense of hope for a change within our school system that will continue to push our system towards new educational heights. However there is still much work to be done, with many concerns surrounding the policies and procedures of disciplinary practices within the county.

In the 2016- 2017 school year, a quarter of all elementary school children suspended in Maryland were from Prince George’s County despite current state legislation prohibiting suspension for grades 2 and under. In the 2017-2018 school year, 48 percent of out-of-school suspensions in Prince George’s county were for disruption and disrespect and 1 in 4 children with out-of-school suspensions in Prince George’s county were students with disabilities.

On November 14, 2018, Delegate Erek L. Barron and former School Board Vice Chair Carolyn Boston, hosted a workshop at G. James Gholson Middle School in Landover, Maryland. The presentation by the Maryland Suspension Representation Project (MSRP) focused on informing the public on their rights during the disciplinary process within Maryland, specifically Prince George’s county. The MSRP is a partnership between Disability Rights Maryland, Maryland Office of the Public Defender, the Public Justice Center, and the Youth, Education and Justice Clinic at the Maryland School of Law.  They are “committed to protecting the due process rights of Maryland students who face school push out.”

There were several key points and takeaways from the workshop, the first being that you and your child should be fully aware of various circumstances where your child has been suspended. If your child was physically removed for breaking school rules, kicked out of a regular classroom, told to go to the front office or the in-school-suspension (ISS) room for the rest of the day, told to go home for the day, or told you cannot enter the building, chances are they have been suspended or possibly expelled.

Parents must be notified in writing of all suspensions prior to the suspension start date. If you receive a call from the school or administration asking you to, “Just come pick your child up,” immediately clarify with the school whether or not your child is being suspended. If they are not, there is no requirement for you to pick your child up at that time and they should be allowed to finish the school day. If they are being suspended, then the administrator must provide you with documentation stating as such at or before you pick up your child that day.

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Fixing Outdated Homework Policy is a Win for Everybody

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by Meredith Kaunitz

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.

Did you know that the Administrative Procedure for the Assignment of Homework (AP No. 6154) for Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) has not been updated since 1983? I’m not one for fixing what isn’t broken but there have been enough advances in evidence- based research in the past 35 years that it is clearly time to revisit.

The third edition of the book The Battle Over Homework, by Dr. Harris Cooper of Duke University, recommends certain specific guidelines for policy makers[1]. Among them is the recommendation that school systems set upper limits for the amount of homework that gets assigned according to developmental stage. It is called the “10-minute Rule,” and is described in the book on p. 92:

The rule conveys to students and parents that each night they should expect all homework assignments together to last about as long as 10 minutes multiplied by the student’s grade level. So, first graders could expect 10 minutes per night, second graders could expect 20 minutes, third graders 30 minutes, and so on. The rule is attractive because it is simple to communicate while also being consistent with research regarding both the length and frequency of assignments.

Currently there are no upper limits on the amount of homework that can be assigned in PGCPS. The recommendation comes from evidence that there is something called the “point of diminishing returns.” Anybody who has studied or worked in business knows this concept. At some point, your strategy for reaching your goal begins to cost more than the benefit and the benefit you are realizing gets smaller and smaller until it is non-existent. This means that after 10 minutes of studying your first grader is no longer learning anything. The same is true for a high school student after 2-hours of studying.

It is true that every assignment will take some students longer than others and that there is no way to predict specifically how long any one assignment will take each individual student. That is where teacher flexibility comes in. Some teachers make adjustments according to the individual needs of students with confidence that they know from their expertise they are doing the right thing. Others look to the procedures to find out what they are “allowed to do”. If they don’t see it explicitly written that they can or should take a specific action, they are reluctant to make adjustments for individual students.

This is especially true for students who do not have any diagnosis and explicit protections, such as an IEP or 504 plan. Teachers and principals may be afraid of overstepping their authority and getting in trouble. Clarifying what adjustments teachers and principals are empowered to take will only help prevent unnecessary conflict over homework. The homework policy as written states several points already supporting these ideas:

Procedure IV. A
Homework should be carefully planned and directed by the teacher in terms of:

  1. The achievement levels and skill needs of individual students.
  2. The interests of individual students . . .

5. Out-of-school time and facilities available for home student out-of-school activities.

Procedure IV. B

The following criteria are recommended to all teachers for the assignment of homework:

3. Individual differences and needs of students must be recognized in marking homework assignments just as they must be recognized in other phases of the educational process.

10. The length of time required to prepare the assignments should be given careful consideration. Assignments should be reasonable in scope, and geared to the age, ability level and attention span of the student.

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Community Listening Sessions Give Parents Opportunity for Advocacy

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by Khadija Bowen

On Monday evening Dr. Goldson, Interim CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), held her second of three listening sessions to hear input from parents and community members on how the administration can improve the school system. Her executive team showed up, school board member Raaheela Ahmed showed up, and delegates, county council and city council members were in attendance. But who wasn’t there? The community! There were many empty seats in the auditorium. To put it into perspective, the listening session was slotted to conclude at 8pm, and we were out of there by 7:30pm.

That I am concerned and disappointed is an understatement. With all of the grumbling, news headlines and negative social media posts that are floating around concerning PGCPS, I would have anticipated a huge turnout at the opportunity to speak with Dr Goldson personally.

This brings me to ponder on what the real issue is with our school system. Is it really poor administrators and teachers, or is at least part of the problem the lack of parent and community involvement? Until we all realize that we have a personal stake and interest in the well-being and success of our schools, our system will never reach the exceptional status that it is capable of.

I am proud that I made an effort to voice my concerns tonight. I left the session with guarantees from the executive office of changes that were to come. I received more cards and cell phone numbers than my card holder could handle. Best of all, I left with a sense that something is changing, and changing for the better!

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But What Can I Do? Thoughts After a Contentious School Board Meeting

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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.

by Robyn Kravitz

What an interesting, frustrating, challenging, yet energetic time to be a Prince George’s County resident!

I’m new-ish to the county. My family moved here two years ago thanks to the Air Force. However, in that time I have seen many hurdles within our school system. The most recent hurdle involves the employment, performance, and resignation of Dr. Maxwell from PGCPS. Here are some basic facts that feel important:

  1. Dr. Maxwell’s contract was renewed for 4 years by County Executive Baker in 2017.
  2. Dr. Maxwell announced that he would transition out of the position. But he was not fired.
  3. Other counties in Maryland have been required to pay large severance packages upon the departure of their CEO or Superintendent on top of massive legal fees.
  4. The Board of Education approved a package that is expected to be accepted by Dr. Maxwell and provide a clear path to Dr. Maxwell’s departure from PGCPS.

Now as parents, where do we go from here? I see two very distinct actions we need to take head on — be an educated voter and volunteer in your local parent-teacher organization.

If you love the decision by the Board of the Education, get out and vote this fall for the candidates that supported this package through the system. If you disagree with the package from the Board of Education, get out and vote this fall for the candidates that offer a view you align with. The way we hold our elected officials accountable for the decisions they make is to show up at the polls in November and vote.

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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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