What I Learned About Lead in the Water in Prince George’s County Schools

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The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the positions of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.
Update: See PGCPS’s response to this post here.

by Theodora Scarato

After the story of the Flint Michigan water crisis unfolded in the media last year, I read a news story reporting that lead had been found in the water at Ardmore Elementary School and that water fountains and sinks had been turned off. I became curious. Was the drinking water in our county schools safe?

So in January of 2016 I decided to write to PGCPS CEO Dr. Maxwell and began a long inquiry asking what tests had been done in Prince George’s County Schools to measure for lead. Here is what I learned:

The school system performed water tests from 2009 to 2012 and found that at least 88 schools exceeded EPA allowable lead levels. (Read the list of “Prince George’s County Public Schools Fixtures that are Valved Off” which was sent to me from PGCPS). The majority of  schools with lead contamination are elementary schools.

As of December 2016, the school system had not done anything to remediate this other than simply to turn off faucets in the majority of these schools.

At first, PGCPS told me that they were fixing the lead problem. I was sent a document titled “PGCPS Lead in Water Program” that explained a four-phase plan to fix the lead problem. This document said that a Request for Proposals (RFP) had been submitted “to remediate the remaining classroom water fountains and sinks throughout the system.” This was “Phase Four” of the plan.

You can imagine my surprise to learn that in fact the information PGCPS had sent me was not accurate. When I asked PGCPS to share the details of the “Phase Four” plan, they responded on October 7, 2016 with an email saying that they had made a mistake.

According to this October email, the “RFP issued in 2012 was published but not awarded to an acceptable vendor. Staff prepared to re-issue the RFP again in 2014, but the funding had to be re-allocated for remediation efforts at Ardmore Elementary School and other priority projects in the Building Services Department.”  

If I correctly understand the information I have been given, little has been done to remediate elevated levels of lead found in testing done over the last decade. Despite remediation work at Ardmore Elementary — which did result in reducing but not eliminating lead levels — the water fountains are off. To my knowledge, nothing has been done in other schools other than simply turning off faucets and drinking fountains.

After a year-long email exchange with PGCPS, I recieved water tests reports for the years 2009 through 2016. I repeatedly wrote to PGCPS asking about how they were fixing the problem and ensuring safe drinking water for all students. I have since received a letter providing each school’s name and listing each fountain and faucet which was turned off. Read it here.

According to this December 2016 letter from PGCPS, parents were not notified about elevated levels of lead during any of the years from 2004 to 2016 by the Environmental Office, and it was unknown whether notification was received from the Communications Office. Only at Ardmore, where parents advocated for safe water, was any remediation done, as far as I am aware.

Despite this, the Lead in Water Document sent to me by PGCPS in September states that, “Prince George’s County Public Schools continues to aggressively address lead in drinking water. PGCPS is confident that all schools have water sources that are free of lead.” I do not believe such statements to be accurate.

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PGCPS Grappling with Large Number of Teachers on Administrative Leave

IMG_6404The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the positions or opinions of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

by Justine C.

In response to the horrific incidents at Judge Sylvania Woods Elementary School and the resulting Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) Student Safety Task Force Final Report (completed May 2016), the PGCPS administration revised Administrative Procedure 5145 “Reporting Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect” in August 2016.

According to Dr. Kevin Maxwell in an email to me dated January 18, “added emphasis was placed on the training of all employees to ensure that as a district we are providing the safest possible atmosphere for all students.” Maxwell continued, “while the large number of reports that have been generated as a result of the renewed emphasis on training, could be viewed as an unintended consequence, it only takes one incident, to one child to demonstrate how important it is for us as a district to remain diligent in this area.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

But I believe that PGCPS needs to be honest that there has been a significant overcorrection and that this is negatively impacting classrooms and students across the county. In fact, it was reported at a public meeting with PGCPS officials hosted by our local PTA on February 1 that Child Protective Services (CPS) has told PGCPS that many reports are not abuse and are not even reportable offenses. I can attest to how disruptive the procedures changes have been.

During the fall and winter of this school year, one of my child’s teachers had to take an extended period of family leave. This resulted in the class having a number of different substitutes of varying temperaments and abilities. There was general confusion on a daily basis about whether or not there would even be a substitute for that day. The lack of continuous instruction meant very little material was covered. If a substitute did not pick up the job for the day, students in the affected class were given a packet of work and sent to sit in other classrooms. When a 9-year-old bemoans the fact that they aren’t learning any math, you know that there is a problem.

Just prior to the winter break, my other child’s teacher disappeared. After parent inquiries were made, it was discovered that the teacher had been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. Again, the students were subject to the vagaries of the substitute teaching pool. Other staff had to develop lesson plans based on the curriculum, grade papers, and input grades into School Max, in addition to their regular duties. And once again, students recognized that the worksheets they were doing were in no way equal to the exciting projects, lessons, and differentiated instruction they had previously enjoyed.

How did this situation evolve?

While I am still somewhat murky on the details of how reports regarding child abuse are made and what the county considers to be abuse, it is clear that these investigations take a significant amount of time due to the sheer number of offices involved. A report goes directly to CPS, who must investigate and give their findings to PGCPS’ Security Services. Employee Relations must also make a determination, and then the area instructional leader and principal weigh in on the outcome.

A Maryland Public Information Act request revealed that as of January 31, 2017, there have been 296 teachers placed on paid administrative leave for the school year, and as of that date, 160 remained on paid administrative leave. At the February 1 PTA meeting, Cesar Pacheco, Assistant Director of Security Services, stated that his office currently has nearly 700 pending cases pertaining to staff throughout the system. This reflects a marked increase from seven years ago when the office handled 250 cases for the entire year.

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Four Ways to Reduce Disruption When Teachers are on Long-term Leave

IMG_6404Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that at least 250 employees of Prince George’s County Public Schools are on paid administrative leave due to allegations of inappropriate conduct. At the October 25 Board of Education meeting, a PGCPS parent presented these suggestions for how to minimize the disruption to instruction amid an unprecedented number of teachers out on administrative leave. The opinions and views expressed are the author’s own.

by Cicely L.

Parents, kids and school leaders are scrambling to deal with the unprecedented number of teachers on administrative leave. Since it does not appear this problem is going away anytime soon, it is time for PGCPS to be proactive rather than reactive, and find ways to ease the transition for everyone involved. So here are 4 suggestions that may help…

1. Give parents relevant information about who is taking over the class when a teacher is on administrative leave.

It is helpful to know the name of the long-term substitute, but it is equally important to know how we can get in touch with them. Provide an email address and inform parents what steps are available to get in contact with the long-term sub or another school official if we have questions on assignments or concerns about our child’s performance.

2. Standardize the timing in which parents are notified when a there is going to be an extended absence of a teacher.

Why are parents in the dark for weeks about who is teaching our children? PGCPS should implement protocols that standardize the timing in which this information is provided. Right now it seems as if the timing is triggered after enough parents complain and demand answers. That is not effective or efficient. Formalize the timeline and require each principal to send a letter home to parents within a certain time period (preferably 48 hours) after it is determined a teacher will be placed on administrative leave.

3. Give principals and school representatives the tools necessary to answer questions from parents about a teacher’s absence. 

It is clear that there is uncertainty in what information can be provided to parents while still maintaining the confidence of teachers. Let’s take the uncertainty out. Let’s stop the rumors and speculation which is far more harmful to an innocent teacher’s reputation. Consider preparing a standard script for school leaders to have available to address these questions. There has to be some wording that doesn’t violate teacher privacy while also giving parents what they need to understand what is happening in their child’s classroom. Distribute it to principals, assistant principals and office personnel so they know how to handle these questions from parents and especially kids who are wondering about the whereabouts of their teacher.

4. Implement strategies to ensure children with long-term substitutes are not falling behind. 

I have heard a number of assurances from various administrators stating their first priority is to maintain a consistent quality education for our children even in periods were a long-term substitute is in place.

Yet, there are plenty of stories of classrooms where no grades have been posted to School Max for weeks. Completed homework assignments that come home day after day with no evidence they have been graded or even looked at. No clear answers whether long-term subs are periodically observed in the classroom. I don’t have these expectations of a typical substitute, but the criteria are different when stepping into the role of a teacher for a long period of time.

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Parent Asks for Expansion of Language Immersion Programs

Delores Millhouse presented a version of this testimony during the public comment portion of the September 22 Board of Education work session. Ms. Millhouse is the co-founder of My Bilingual Child, a parent advocacy group for Spanish Immersion programs in Prince George’s County Public Schools. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

by Delores Millhouse

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As the co-founder of My Bilingual Child, a parental advocacy group that has advocated very strongly for Spanish Language Immersion programs, I thank you for the broadened program offerings that include Spanish and Chinese Immersion programs. Today, I come before you to recommend that before you approve the PGCPS FY 2018-2023 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), that it is clearly outlined in the plan, the use of underutilized facilities or the construction of new facilities that will accommodate the expansion of language immersion programs, such as Spanish and Chinese, that are not currently budgeted for middle and high school immersion tracks from grades six through twelve.

Your prior commitment to providing more rigorous programing and increased specialty program options has answered the call of many families who felt that their options were relocating and/or enrolling their children into private schools. My Bilingual Child has an army of parents that support our advocacy efforts. These parents and community members are pleased with their decision of enrolling their children in the PGCPS language immersion programs and are working very closely with us to support the administration and BOE decision to ensure the expansion of these programs is successful.

My son is currently enrolled in the first grade at Phyllis E. Williams Spanish Immersion School in District 6. He is enjoying what he calls a new challenge because he is able to learn all of his subjects in Spanish — not just Math and Science, as he did at Capitol Heights Elementary School. He has stressed to me his desire to master Spanish so he can start learning Mandarin and Arabic. Therefore I stand before you to stress the importance of continuing your support of “high-demand” programs to include the expansion of Spanish and Chinese language immersion programs.

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Charter Schools vs. Traditional Public Schools: One Parent’s Experience

Prince George’s County has several publicly funded charter schools. Though charter schools administer the same statewide tests and are accountable to the Board of Education for student achievement, the curricula, instructional programs, and policies may be different than in traditional public schools. Each charter school has its own Board of Directors. Policies, procedures, philosophies, and approaches to education vary from school to school.

Here, one parent relates her experiences with a charter school and a traditional public school in Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS). The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

by Khadija B.

IMG_6342Picture this: My husband and I wake up at 5 am to get our kids ready for their first day of school. One child attends a charter school more than 25 minutes away from home (in good traffic), and transportation is not provided. Our other child attends school a little closer, but she is in the Talented and Gifted (TAG) program. She is attending her dedicated TAG center, and transportation is provided.

I put my third grader on the private bus — that I pay out-of-pocket for — and I follow the bus to his school. Last year, he was left at this school by a different private bus company, so I hope that this will minimize the chances of a repeat of last year.

I follow the bus all the way to the charter school, only to get to the door and have the teacher say, “Students only, no parents allowed.”
“What?! I just drove twenty-five minutes, fought through traffic, took time off from work, just so that I could see and meet my child’s teacher and find out where his class will be, and you are telling me I can’t even come in the building?”

The teacher replies unapologetically, “Aww, so sorry, but you have to leave now. You can meet the teacher at Back to School Night in two weeks.”

I don’t even know how the classes are arranged. Will he be changing classes this year? Is there a PE uniform? And what about the fact that I was able to walk my son to class last year, on his first day? All of these concerns are running through my head.

Fortunately, I am not the only parent with this concern. Unfortunately, some parents are more outspoken than I am. I hear cursing. Some parents refuse to go.

I really do not want to leave without meeting his teacher and making sure she knows he wears glasses and needs to be in the front of the class, but I do not want to make a scene and embarrass him. After all, he has to see these teachers every day, not I. I decide to leave the school, but I can’t help but ask, “Excuse me, where was the email notification?” What I want to say is, “Where is your empathy for all of these parents who care and want to show their support and cheer their children on to class for their first day of school?”

Silence is what I receive, and also a shrug of the shoulder.

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A Parent’s Letter to County Executive Baker

by Caroline Small

Dear Executive Baker:

I am writing as a parent of a young child who should be starting in Prince George’s County Public Schools next year. I am considering moving out of this County because of the situation with school leadership that I have witnessed over the last year, particularly but not exclusively with regards to the current Head Start situation. I love Prince George’s County, so I am hoping that there will be a change in the way leadership is responding to these recurring situations, so that my confidence can be restored.

CEO Kevin Maxwell’s public responses to the loss of federal Head Start funds, as well as to the recent situation at Dora Kennedy and the instances of sexual abuse, are wholly inadequate. Once a problem is reported, it is not “poor judgment” on the part of “a few people.” It is a problem with the administration. Likewise the school board’s failure to be aware and monitoring is a failure of leadership. The emphasis from the County has been on “ensuring the program continues” — showing much less concern about understanding and correcting root causes of the failure. That, combined with the fact that the problems were not corrected initially, makes it appear that the County does not recognize the severity of this problem.

Even more importantly, though, the response suggests that none of our leaders are willing to step up and take responsibility for the shoddiness of the leadership that has been demonstrated up to this point. You have stated that nobody will be asked to resign or held publicly accountable for this failure. As far as I can tell as a parent, there is no accountability at any level, and therefore I believe the commitment to reform is insincere.

Our teachers are, for the most part, valiant. But the leaders of our school system — and you— are saying exactly the wrong things. School leadership in this county is closed off, disengaged, and suffering from a trust deficit with the community.

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Proposed Policy Update to Require Training for Parent Volunteers

Lori Morrow presented a version of this testimony during the public comment portion of the May 12th Board of Education Meeting. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

by Lori Morrow

I would like to share my thoughts on the volunteer policies on the agenda tonight. I am glad to see that the administrative policies about volunteers will be updated, as there were certainly some gray areas and inconsistent implementation in Administrative Procedures for Volunteers and Criminal Background Checks.

However, as I read the updated language for Board Policy 0106, I’m concerned some of these new procedures have the potential to create barriers for parents who are interested in volunteering. In particular, I believe that, while “Requiring all volunteers and leadership of Parent Teacher Associations and Parent Teacher Organizations to undergo specific training on reporting suspected child abuse and neglect” is an understandable reaction to incidents this year, depending on the form that training takes, it is yet another requirement we’re levying on volunteers that could result in diminished volunteerism.

I am a former Elementary School PTA President, and incoming Middle School PTSO President and I know how difficult it can be to engage parents and recruit them as volunteers. It is my hope that parent leaders and advocates will be included in your process as you establish volunteer training and monitoring procedures. Parents, grandparents and community members who choose to provide free labor in our schools should be treated as welcomed partners, not suspects. We accept the locked doors and Raptor checks and the sign-in procedures, but we also want reassurance that volunteers are welcome and needed.

In my personal experience, I think we lost some of that welcome feeling both when Parent Liaison positions were eliminated in the budget cuts years ago, and also as security measures have increased in recent years. If parents, school staff, and the administration work together, I believe we can find a balance between the transparent, welcoming atmosphere parents and volunteers appreciate, while still maintaining the safe learning environment our students deserve.

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Party Politics, Exhibit A: Sample Ballots

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

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Last week, I eagerly listened to a segment on Kojo Nnamdi’s WAMU radio show that addressed our politicized school board elections. David Cahn, Co-Chair of Citizens for an Elected Board, and Cheryl Landis, District 5 Board of Education Candidate and Chair of the Democratic Central Committee for Prince George’s County were guests on the show.

At one point, Mr. Nnamdi seemed to understate—or even misstate—the concern that so many of us have about partisan meddling in our school board elections. Speaking to Cheryl Landis, Mr. Nnamdi said, “Mr. Cahn and presumably others are concerned that you make it clear in some of your campaigning that you are a Democrat.”

If Mr. Nnamdi thinks that simply stating one’s party affiliation sums up the problem with partisan campaigns for school board, he is sadly missing the point.

Among the campaign literature for April’s primary election was a mailer sent to District 5 residents touting County Executive Baker’s endorsed candidates. Note the “sample ballot” on page 2 (pictured above), with the banner at the top reading, “2016 Democratic Primary Sample Ballot, Take this with you when you vote.” Names of the preferred candidates are highlighted; names of the other candidates are printed so lightly that only those with sharp eyesight can read them.

When a school board candidate is presented on a sample ballot as the preferred choice (or, in this case, the only choice) of party leaders, it is nearly impossible for any other candidate to prevail. This is the kind of partisan meddling that has led many county residents to conclude that party leaders are stacking the board with hand-selected members, members who owe them their loyalty.

 

Should the Democratic Central Committee Endorse School Board Candidates?

Tommi Makila wrote the following letter urging the Democratic Central Committee not to endorse specific Board of Education candidates in the upcoming elections.

July 17, 2016

TO: Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee

RE: Board of Education election endorsements

Dear Central Committee Members:

I am a Democratic community activist who is closely involved in the Prince George’s County Public Schools. I have served on the PTSA board of my child’s school for five years. I have also served for two years as the legislative chair of the Prince George’s County PTA Council, and during that time I have also served on the Maryland PTA legislative committee. I am a member of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools and a founding member of the Alliance for Nonpartisan School Board Elections. I am writing this letter, however, as a concerned parent and individual community activist.

I am writing to you to urge that the Democratic Central Committee not make any endorsements in the November 2016 Prince George’s County Board of Education elections. As the Central Committee makes its decision about potential endorsements in BOE races, I would like you to keep the following issues in mind:

1. By Maryland law, school board elections are to be nonpartisan. I have a hard time coming up with anything else that could be as much against the spirit of this law than the central committee of one of the major parties making endorsements in these races.

2. In a down ballot race such as a BOE election, a Democratic Central Committee endorsement and its accompanying significant financial benefit in the form of the Democratic sample ballot is nearly certain to be decisive. In a down ballot race, it is virtually impossible for any opponent to garner enough financial resources to match the Democratic Party resources. I want us voters to decide the race based on the ideas the candidates present to us. I don’t want the Central Committee with its significant financial resources to make the decision for us voters.

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The Grading Policy Changes: One Parent’s View

Chelai Johnson is a Prince George’s County parent. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

by Chelai Johnson

100_3384 (1)I applaud Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) for being proactive and convening a project team to assess current grading procedures and policies. A lot of thought and research was put forth by the team. However, there are two recommendations that concern me.

Recommendation #4: Teachers must give grades of no less than 50% on all assignments for good faith effort.

To get credit for putting forth effort is a good thought when kids have struggled. But, as a parent, I would like to think that my children put forth effort in all work, as that’s the expectation my husband and I set in our home. On the other hand, as a parent, I will never know my children’s true level of mastering a subject area if I don’t have access to their true grade. How can they put forth more effort if we don’t know the true effort that was made in the first place?

This leads me to Recommendation #1: Teachers will assign a quarter grade of no less than 50% for quarters one, two and three.

If a student’s grades are not reflective of 50%, why act as if they earned higher averages? Student grades should reflect what they earn. The key word is earned. If I were to decide to obtain a tutor to assist my children or tap into other avenues of assistance, it’s difficult to mark progression with a minimum of 50% implemented. Moving from a 20% to 50% shows a level of early mastery. But the way PGCPS presents the grade, you won’t see progression at the lower levels of mastery, from quarter to quarter. Even though 20% is low, 20 to 50 is a large jump that should not be discounted.

Although there are two recommendations that I oppose, there are two that I support strongly:

Recommendation #7: Students shall have one additional opportunity to improve their score on a qualifying assessment/project which demonstrates knowledge of course content, skills and standards.

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