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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Question 1: Four Facts About the Casino Lock-Box Initiative

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by Llew Brown and David Duba

The 2018 mid-term elections will be held Tuesday, November 6th, 2018. In this election cycle, voters will make a number of choices that will impact public education in Maryland for years to come. Perhaps it’s poetic justice that the first amendment listed on the ballot is related to education funding, a key issue across the country in 2018. This past spring, teachers participated in large scale protests and went on strike in six separate states. These protests were inspired by wages being below the cost of living for school personnel and inadequate budgets for classroom supplies. They coincided with an incident here in Prince George’s County involving the inflation of pay for central office employees, and the early closure of schools throughout the county during the first week of classes due to an inability to adequately cool aging facilities. Given the array of issues facing public education, it’s reasonable to ask, “Where will money to fix public school issues come from, and how can we ensure adequate and equitable funding?” Read further to review a bit of history related to the use of casino funds, and the potential impact of question 1 on the future of public education funding in Maryland.

What is Question 1?

Question 1 on the ballot proposes a constitutional amendment that requires the governor to use casino revenue to supplement funding for prekindergarten through grade 12 in public schools, beyond the minimum levels prescribed by current funding formulas. Sometimes referred to as the “casino lockbox” amendment, passage of this ballot initiative could steer millions of dollars from casino revenues to fund public education.

Didn’t the law already require casino money to support education?

In 2008, voters decided to legalize gambling in the state of Maryland. Revenue from taxes on gambling was since added to the state budget each year. However, according to Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, general tax revenue that was used to fund education prior to 2009 has been regularly diverted from education funding as casino tax revenue has increased. Money that used to be spent on education from the general tax revenue is being diverted to other projects like road construction and employee salaries. Put another way, gambling revenue has replaced education funding, not increased it. By voting yes on Question 1, money from casino revenue will be used to supplement funding for education, per an amendment to the Maryland constitution.

How much money is at stake? How can the money be used?

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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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Notes from the October 9 Budget and Operations Committee Meeting

by Lori Morrow

The Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) Board of Education Budget and Operations Committee met for a regular meeting on Tuesday, October 9. BOE Members present were K. Alexander Wallace (Committee Chair), Carolyn Boston, and Sonya Willams. Members Curtis Valentine (Committee Vice Chair) and Raaheela Ahmed were on conference call. The PGCPS Chief Financial Officer Mike Herbstman and Internal Audit Director Michelle Winston were also in attendance.

1.  The first agenda item was a review of the Committee Charter. Last spring, the PGCPS Board of Education unanimously passed Board of Education policy 8100 which did a full reorganization of the standing and ad hoc committees. The reorganization nearly doubled the scope for the Budget and Operations Committee, formerly known as the Finance, Audit and Budget Committee.

The larger scope for the Budget and Operations Committee includes business management services; human resources & talent development; information technology; pupil accounting, school boundaries & capital improvement (CIP); and supporting services. Last year mostly focused on Operational and Capital Improvement Budgets and Internal Audit.

2. The second meeting agenda item was the annual work plan for the Budget and Operations Committee: https://youtu.be/H_khPdyQaLA?t=498

The document outlines meeting dates and proposed topics for the committee this school year. There was a systematic request to meet twice per month from November to February as those are peak months in covering the Operational Budget. In the committee discussion, BOE members amended the work plan to add the topics of CIP, Public-Private Partnerships (P3), 21st Century Schools State Commission, and Procurement.

The Budget and Operations Committee will also be responsible for selecting locations for the January/February Budget work sessions and public hearings.

3.  Internal Audit Director Michelle Winston presented the annual Internal Audit report: https://youtu.be/H_khPdyQaLA?t=1333

The report included a summary of FY2018 Internal Audit operations and the plan for the FY2019. Ms. Winston presented data on the 97 total financial, operational, and fraud audits; 309 hotline report submissions; and 61 property inventory assessments completed in FY2018. An estimated total losses of $16M were averted through audit activities.  Actual losses identified in the audits were $1.8M, with $1.1M of that in property assets. Property items continue to be researched on an ongoing basis.

Internal Audit is responsible for school activity fund audits, hotline & special investigations, and property inventories. Special requests for 2018 included the Human Resources salary increases and Bus Lot Transportation payroll operations.

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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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With a New County Executive, What Comes Next for PGCPS?

100_3401by T. Carter Ross

Nine Democrats and one Republican are running for Prince George’s County Executive, and no matter who is elected, one of their first tasks will be exercising their responsibility for overseeing the county’s public school system. Regardless of public statements in favor or in opposition to HB 1107, because it and the hybrid school board it authorized remain the rule of the land, the next County Executive will continue to exercise great authority over PGCPS and will have the ability to shape school systems’ leadership through their appointments.

Over the next four years, the County Executive will most likely have the opportunity to name a new CEO for Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), appoint three people to the Board of Education, and name the Board of Education’s Chair and Vice Chair. However, the new County Executive cannot simply clear house; there are limits on these appointment powers.

Selecting the next PGCPS CEO

The process for selecting the CEO was set out in HB 1107 and codified as §4–201.1 in the Education Article of the Code of Maryland. This subsection, §4–201.1, applies only to Prince George’s County, but it is based on and largely parallels §4–201 (which governs all other county public school systems in Maryland) and §4–301 (which governs the public school system in Baltimore City).

The County Executive does not have an unrestricted right to name the PGCPS CEO. Under §4–201.1(c)(1), a three-person committee consisting of two residents of Prince George’s County appointed by the governor and chaired by a member of the Maryland State Board of Education appointed by the Maryland State Superintendent of Schools must recommend three candidates for the CEO position. It is from this list of three candidates that the County Executive choses the CEO.

After a CEO is selected, the Chair of the Board of Education is charged with negotiating a contract for the CEO’s term. The selection and contract must then be approved by the Maryland State Superintendent of Schools. If a contract is reached and the appointment approved, the CEO is in place for a four-year term, beginning on July 1.

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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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