Follow-Up Needed After Last Year’s Changes in PGCPS Recess Policy

playground_6394.v01b.25percentLori Morrow presented this testimony during the public comment portion of the July 12 Prince George’s County Board of Education work meeting.

Good evening Dr. Eubanks, Board Members, Dr. Maxwell, staff and community members,

My name is Lori Morrow.  I have been a PGCPS parent for 10 years and am active with the Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools. I chose to speak about recess tonight because it is a concern I continue to hear from parents, and it is also something principals have the ability to change for the upcoming school year if they wish.

Last summer, PGCPS updated its Health and Wellness Procedure 0116, and one of the changes was a recommendation to provide 30 minutes for elementary recess, with the minimum required time increasing from 15 to 20 minutes. This spring I submitted a Public Information Act request to find out how many schools actually met that 30-minute recommendation. The answer I received, and I quote: “Upon review, there are no records available to show school responses for compliance with the updated AP 0116 for this request.” I take that to mean the administration does not actually know.

Included in my reply was the spreadsheet of recess times by school prior to the update.  It was enlightening to learn that before 2017, approximately HALF of PGCPS elementary schools had 15-minute recess. At the same time, a quarter of schools managed to provide 30 minutes. With studies that show increased recess can improve student focus and academics, why were so many principals content to do the minimum, and are they still just meeting the minimum?

We appreciate that the wellness policy was updated last year, but I would love to see the administration and the Board of Education do more to encourage all principals to provide 30-minute recess. For the parents and community members out there, don’t settle for the minimum. If you believe kids should have 30 minutes for recess, advocate for it at your school. The framework is there and the principal has the authority to make it happen. I also learned there are no MSDE or PGCPS policies prohibiting middle school principals from implementing a break or recess period. I would love to see some of them experiment with schedules that give middle school students a mental break from their hour-long classes.

Ultimately I’m disappointed because this reinforced complaints that even when the policies and procedures are in place, schools may not be following them. For example 0116 also states that “Withholding of recess as a punishment is prohibited,” but many people, including my rising 5th grader, have examples where it is used that way either for individual students or the entire class.

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Reflections of a PTA Leader

100_3401by Lori Morrow

I recently attended the Maryland Parent Teacher Association (PTA) convention on July 14-15. It was good to connect with other Prince George’s County Public Schools and Maryland PTA leaders. And since my last convention was seven years ago, it was great to refresh myself on PTA operations. After reflecting on the weekend, here are recommendations based on my experiences as a PTA/PTO president and board member:

  1. State your mission. This was emphasized in every convention workshop.  Why are we here? What is the purpose of our organization? Whether you are a PTA or PTO (Parent Teacher Organization), your mission should be clearly stated in your bylaws or guiding document. Read it out loud at Board or Membership meetings.  Type it as a header or footer on your flyers. It serves as a reminder that all  actions should support that mission as well.
  2. Read your bylaws. Reading bylaws and guiding documents should be one of the first things new board members do. Make your bylaws available for all members (and potential members) as well so that there is transparency in how the organization operates. For PTAs, bylaws must be updated and submitted to the state PTA every three years. If your bylaws state that you follow Robert’s Rules of Order, become familiar with them and use them to help conduct meetings in an efficient and orderly manner.
  3. Publish standing rules. These are the day-to-day policies and procedures that your PTA/PTO follows that are not covered in your bylaws. Standing rules are established by the local organization or committee and do not need to be submitted to the state. Examples of standing rules could include policies for reimbursement; procedures to follow in planning events; procedures about maintaining binders for board members; or job/committee descriptions that are not outlined in the bylaws.
  4. Be transparent. I cannot emphasize this one enough! Let members know when and how decisions are made. Provide explanations for budget and committee decisions. The board should never operate in secret.
  5. Don’t take it personally. This can be a challenge because we are all human and it is easy to become emotional with decisions that impact our children. There will always be someone who questions a decision or is not happy with an outcome. As much as possible, take a step back and lead the PTA/PTO as you would a business. Follow the bylaws and rules that will help you make decisions in the best interest of all children.

  6. Collaborate. Talk to staff, parents, and the community members and be open to other opinions and ideas. Work as a team to make things happen, and respect that sometimes your board or membership may vote in a way that is different from what you would do on your own. Network with parent groups outside your school as well. No matter what the issue is, chances are good that someone else has faced it before.
  7. Be inclusive. Invite everyone to join. The best recruiting tool is face-to-face communication, but hardcopy forms, emails, social media, and phone calls can work too. Never assume that someone won’t be interested before they are even asked. PTA/PTO membership is open to anyone that shares your mission, so reach out to extended family, neighbors, community members, and local businesses. In the same vein, never turn away a volunteer. There is always something else that can be done. Ask what they are interested in doing, or how much time they can commit.
  8. Keep good records. All officers of the organization have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure the organization stays in good financial standing. Know what the obligations are legally and financially, and ensure that the PTA/PTO is meeting them. You will not be in this position forever. Keep in mind what information would have been useful when you were starting and write it down.
  9. Know your limits. Being a PTA/PTO leader does not mean that you are single-handedly responsible to plan and execute every event, fundraiser, and activity of the organization. Delegate, work as a team, and sometimes you just have to say “no” when you don’t have enough volunteers to make things happen. It is okay.
  10. Think advocacy. There are PTAs and PTOs that are great at planning events and fundraisers and family nights, but don’t forget to return to your mission of advocacy. It is the difference between doing a fundraiser to support something once, and advocating for permanent funding at the county or state level to make sure that thing will continue on. As a group of parents, teachers, staff, and community members, we have a powerful voice and influence when we use it.

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What to Do Over the Summer: Read the New Grading Policies, Get Fingerprinted, Attend a Pop-up Event

by Lori Morrow

For anyone who needs a break from thinking about the systemwide controversies in Prince George’s County Public Schools,  here are some other things to do this summer:

1. Find out which PTA/PTO committees need members for next year and volunteer.
2. Ask school staff if there are areas that need to be spruced up before the school year and gather some friends to help.
3. Read the new PGCPS Grading & Reporting Administrative Procedures 5121.1-.3, so you are familiar with them before school starts.
4. Volunteer to ask nurseries/home improvement stores for flowers, mulch, garden items to beautify the school.
5. Volunteer in the community with your middle schooler or high schooler to work on their service-learning hours.
6. If your elementary school has 20-25 minutes for recess, talk to your principal and ask them to increase it to 30 minutes per the recommendation in AP 0116.
7. Check out the Family & Community Engagement Pop-up events this summer (see the calendar at pgcps.org).
8. Get fingerprinted and do your volunteer training before the school year starts.

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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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How a Handful of Parents Transformed Two Staff Lounges

by Robyn Kravitz

Our children spend almost as many waking hours at school as they do at home. And our teachers spend even more time at school than our students! So when a few parents learned about the drab teachers’ lounge at the Benajamin D. Foulois Creative and Performing Arts Academy, we knew we had to do something. We wanted the staff at the school to know that we loved them for loving our kids. We wanted the staff to know that those moments they spend making sure our kids eat their lunch, catch their bus, have their homework in their backpacks, and know they have a safe place are VERY noticed.

Walking into the teachers’ lounge wasn’t nearly as shocking as walking into the lounge for the food service workers. Both rooms were dirty, dark, and unloved. Something had to be done. So over the course of about two months, the four of us worked with our principal to develop a plan: We would paint, clean, decorate and give some life to both spaces. Our plan included using the school’s colors, blue and yellow, to give the space some spirit. We wanted to give the space a touch of practicality too, by doubling the amount of refrigerator space and providing more places for lunches to be cooked.

30582185_10101323766239168_7296234309162209730_nAfter we developed our plan, we scoured CraigsList, FreeCycle, Facebook Market Place, thrift shops, and worked with the management at our local Home Depot to stay within a very small budget — and a lot of heart — to fill the lounges with a new work station, new table, new decor, a new microwave and refrigerator.

30572264_10101323766403838_33446095655920337_nOver the week of PGCPS’s spring break, we went to work. We spent the first day cleaning. Everything from the chairs to the floors to the butcher paper, everything got a solid scrubbing. We spent days two and three painting the walls and cabinets, painting a chalk board sign for motivational quotes, and putting up vinyl decals to match our theme. The fourth day consisted of putting it all back together. Our Falcon blue and yellow teachers’ lounge now has a fun and spunky feeling with a quote that reads “Be the teacher who eats the last cupcake in the teachers’ lounge because we need teachers who are FEARLESS!” And the food service workers now have a room that makes it feel like spring has sprung!

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Legislative Update: School Calendars

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by Lori Morrow  

Update as of March 30: The Prince George’s County Board of Education voted unanimously last night to restore spring break. Schools will open on April 9. See the PGCPS press release here.

Clearly Mother Nature has her own agenda this year, and it did not include allowing spring to start on time. The late season snow, coupled with the recent “wind day,” are wreaking havoc with spring break plans for families and staff. Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) has announced that it will use both April inclement weather days that were programmed when the 2017-18 school calendar was created, as well as an additional day on April 4 (see PGCPS’s March 22 announcement here). The two days in June and one make-up day in February have already been used.

This year’s school calendar is the first since Governor Hogan’s executive order that mandated all public schools start after Labor Day and end by June 15th. The compacted schedule has created challenges for PGCPS administration and other districts around the state trying to balance instructional days with professional development, state-mandated holidays, and possible inclement weather. While Maryland law does have a process for waivers, the State Board of Education has not approved any waivers to the 180-day requirement yet this year.

Unfortunately we cannot control the weather, but there are two bills before the Maryland General Assembly that may allow for greater flexibility in future school calendars by modifying the June end date:

SB 729/HB 553 would authorize a county board of education to extend the length of the school year for up to 5 days without approval from the State Board of Education. The bill was passed unanimously by the Senate and is scheduled for a hearing in the House of Delegates at 1 PM on Thursday, March 29.

HB 679 would require public schools to complete the school year on or before the third Friday in June.  This would help account for the variability in the length of the school year because Labor Day is not a fixed date.  This bill passed the House with a 125-12 vote but has not been scheduled for a hearing in the Senate.

How can you help? Contact your State Delegates and Senators and ask that they support SB 729/HB 553. Phone numbers and email addresses are available online.  You can also submit testimony by writing or in person for the March 29th hearing.

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Del. Barnes Forms Parent Involvement and Education Advisory Committee

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by Lori Morrow

Over forty Prince George’s County parents, staff, community advocates and elected officials gathered at the TGI Friday’s in Forestville, Maryland on Saturday, February 17 to find out more about Delegate Dr. Darryl Barnes’s Parent Involvement and Education Advisory Committee.

Led by Chair Earnest Moore and Vice Chair Tramaine Crawford, the advisory committee was established to “tackle lingering issues in the Prince George’s County Education System.”

Delegate Barnes emphasized that the focus of the committee is not to “throw stones,” but rather to develop ideas and solutions that can help move our system forward. Collaboration was a recurring theme throughout the meeting. Individuals were charged to bring together our diverse knowledge and resources, as well as learn from those who have come before us. Ultimately, the goal is for the committee to present findings and recommendations to decision-makers including the County Council, Board of Education, and General Assembly as appropriate.

Those present for the planning breakfast were invited to volunteer for at least one of the seven subcommittees that most fit their expertise or passion. Mr. Crawford introduced the seven topics: Special Education; Restorative Practices and Bullying; Charter and Public School Law; Teacher and Administrator Policy/ Betterment; Public School Improvement; Minority Male Involvement/Mentorship; and English Language Learners. Subcommittees will meet via teleconference or in person, with initial tasks to choose and chair and develop work plans and timelines. The full advisory committee will meet again in approximately 30 days to share updates with the Chairs and Delegate Barnes.

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