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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Recap of Last Tuesday’s District 7 Education Roundtable

by Robyn Kravitz

On September 18, Board Member K. Alexander Wallace hosted an inaugural Education Roundtable discussion for stakeholders from District 7. Attendants included parents from Wise High School, Imagine Morningside, Benjamin D. Foulois CPAA, Overlook Spanish Immersion, Bradberry Heights, and Arrowhead, along with District 7 residents, educators, and administrators.

Mr. Wallace shared that his job as a board of education member has three pillars — policy, budget, and community engagement. He hopes that this roundtable will be an ongoing tradition for District 7 residents that will help him with all three pillars. To drive the point home, Mr. Wallace has scheduled the next roundtable meeting for November 27, 6:30pm at Drew Freeman Middle School. After some quick introductions, the meeting was a true roundtable experience. Folks shared concerns and brainstormed potential solutions. Most points related to two different topics: communications and investment in PGCPS.

Many folks raised concerns about communications and consistency.  Different schools –and even teachers within a given school — use various tools to communicate with families. The idea that came out of the meeting was that a policy could be created requiring principals to release information to parents that clearly laying out the ways in which the school will communicate with families. There wasn’t a strong preference for one communication tool, just a strong desire for a consistent tool choice (i.e., ClassDojo, SchoolMax, Gov Delivery, text message, etc.). This idea resonated strongly with the room. It felt like a compromise that would give a principal the freedom to decide with method works best for their school but also provide transparency and a clear directive, so families know exactly where to look for communications.

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Top Ten Reasons to Attend Back-to-School-Night

Lori Morrow wrote a previous version of this post for the Benjamin Tasker Parent Teacher Student Organization. We are publishing it here with permission.

Back-to-School Nights are coming up soon in Prince George’s County Public Schools. Here are the TOP TEN REASONS we think you should attend

  1. This is your night to MEET TEACHERS! Most of our middle school students have at least 7 teachers per semester. This is the best night to meet them all and find out their expectations for the year. Just keep in mind that this is not a time for conferences; your time with each class will be brief.
  1. This is also a good time to MEET ADMINISTRATORS and Support Staff throughout the night. It is always nice to put faces to the names of the people who can help you when you have questions and concerns at school.
  1. You get to VISIT CLASSROOMS (without having to embarrass your middle schooler!). Seeing the environment can help you appreciate how the school functions every day.
  1. Take advantage of this opportunity to MEET OTHER PARENTS. Middle School can be a challenge for all of us. It’s a great time to exchange contact information and increase your parent support network.
  1. Attending shows your CHILD that SCHOOL MATTERS TO YOU and that you want to be involved.
  1. Attending shows school STAFF that you want to PLAY AN ACTIVE ROLE in your child’s education.
  1. Find out about EVENTS AND ACTIVITIES that are coming up at school, including opportunities to volunteer.
  1. Drop off those BOX TOPS that you have been collecting all summer. Every dime counts!
  1. Show your teachers some love by bringing in extra lined paper, pencils, whiteboard markers, or Kleenex as a CLASSROOM DONATION.
  1. And above all, JOIN YOUR PTA, PTO, OR PTSO! Stay informed, add your support to our team of advocates, and know that your dues will support activities for our students and staff for the entire year.

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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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