Memo to Staff: Don’t Send Work-Related Emails on the Weekend

Natalie Barnes is a mathematics middle school teacher in the county. The views expressed are the author’s own.

by Natalie Barnes

On November 2, Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO Kevin Maxwell sent a memo to all staff regarding weekend email communication:

“The nature of our work often requires us to miss opportunities to spend time with loved ones. I would like to announce a change that hopefully encourages you to seek a better work-life balance.

“Effective Friday, November 4, I am strongly discouraging weekend email communication. Please refrain from sending emails after 6:00 pm on Fridays unless it is an emergency situation.

“You may resume sending emails Monday morning. I ask that supervisors maintain current contact information for all staff members in the event of an emergency.

“As always, thank you for all of the work that you do on behalf of our students and schools.”

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How the PGCPS Governance System has Changed Under HB 1107: A Before and After Comparison

Image 2-20-16 at 4.28 PMby Genevieve Demos Kelley

The governance system of Prince George’s County Public Schools was restructured in 2013 under House Bill 1107. Many people know that HB 1107 changed the structure of the Board of Education from an all-elected board to a hybrid of elected and appointed members. But there are several other features of the bill that have significantly changed the way the school system is governed.

Here’s a before-and-after table highlighting some of the changes made under HB 1107:

Before HB 1107 Under HB 1107 (Effective June 1, 2013)
Members of the school board are elected. Board is a combination of members who are elected and appointed. (Section 3-114)
Nine elected school board members, each of whom resides in a different school district; one student member of the board. Nine elected board members, one student member, and four appointed board members (three appointed by the County Executive and one appointed by the County Council). (Section 3-114)
Board needs a simple majority to pass a motion. The school board requires a two-thirds vote to take an action that is contrary to an action of the CEO. (Section 4-403)
Board members elect a chair and vice chair of the school board once a year, from among the members of the school board. The County Executive selects the chair and vice chair of the school board for a two-year term. The vice chair is appointed from among the elected members of the board. (Section 3-1004)
If a seat on the Board becomes vacant more than 180 days before the end of the term, it is filled at a special election.  If a seat held by an elected member of the Board becomes vacant, the County Executive fills the vacancy by appointment. (Section 3-1002)
The head of the school system is known as the Superintendent of schools. The superintendent is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the school system. (Section 4-101)
The school board has authority to consolidate schools. The CEO has the authority to consolidate schools. (Section 4-120)
The school board selects and appoints the superintendent of the school system.  The County Executive selects the CEO of the school system from a list of three candidates provided by a search committee. The school board then appoints the CEO after agreement on contract terms negotiated by the chair of the county board.  (Section 4-201.1)
The county superintendent is responsible for the administration of his office. The CEO is responsible for the administration of his office, including hiring and setting the salaries of the executive staff. (Section 4-204)
 The county school board shall employ individuals in the positions that the county board considers necessary for the operation of the public schools in the county. The CEO of the school system shall hire and set the salaries of a Chief Operating Officer, a Chief Financial Officer, a Chief Academic officer, a Chief of Staff, a Board Liaison, and any other necessary executive staff in the office of the CEO. (Section 6-201)

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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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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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Prince George’s Schools Advocate on Kojo Nnamdi Show

Tommi Makila coordinates the Alliance for Nonpartisan School Board Elections. He is the parent of a student in the Prince George’s County Public Schools system.

by Tommi Makila

A long-time school advocate, David Cahn, will be a guest on WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show on Wednesday, July 13 at noon. You can listen to the show on WAMU’s frequency of 88.5 MHz, or online. The show is typically divided into two half-hour segments; at this time it is unknown which segment David will be on.

The show’s website assigns this title to the segment: “Is Partisan Politics Poisoning Prince George’s School Board?” David Cahn will address the school board restructuring that happened under House Bill 1107. He is a long-time proponent of a fully elected school board, serving as co-chair of the advocacy group Citizens for an Elected Board. (You can connect with the group through its Facebook page.)

David was invited to be on the Kojo Nnamdi Show after the Washington Post published an opinion piece regarding school board elections that he and I co-authored.

HB 1107 has been getting a lot of attention in the school advocate circles as of late, so please consider calling in to the show to discuss the issue. WAMU’s call-in number is 1-800-433-8850.

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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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Teacher Raises Questions About Grading and Reporting Changes

Natalie Barnes is a math teacher at a Prince George’s County middle school. 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 Natalie Barnes

100_3373As a middle school math teacher, I wholeheartedly support some of the thirteen recommended changes to the grading and reporting policy. Teachers should provide a syllabus (recommendation #6), use approved grading systems (#12), and grade and return student work within ten school days (#9). Similarly, administers should ensure that grading is applied uniformly (#13). These seem to be teaching practices that are already common among quality educators.

Yet, there are some policies with which I disagree. Regarding behavior, attendance,and grades (#2 & #3), Gorman Brown explained during the June 9th Board of Education work session (at 40:35 in the video) that grading should be based on course standards. Yet, the mathematical standards include “use appropriate tools strategically”and “critique the reasoning of others” (Standards for Mathematical Practice). From a teacher’s perspective, if a student is throwing rulers across the room or refusing to participate in a lesson, they are failing these standards. During class discussions, Socratic seminars, or classwork in general, what grade should be given to students who do not participate appropriately? That said, a rubric or other more objective scale should be used to reduce subjectivity, but behavior is an important part of a student’s classwork. When asked about the role of participation in grading, Dr. Shawn Joseph responded that “participation is not part of our administrative procedure” (1:02:03) so it is unclear as to how this impacts behavior (1:03:14).

I also have concerns, as do many others, about the uniform minimum grade of a 50%
provided students put forth a good faith effort (#1 & #4). Even though “good faith effort” has been defined by the panel as “any assignment in which a student completes at least 50% of the required content,” this still leaves a great deal of room for subjectivity. As a math teacher, I have seen students write down random numbers and assume that this is quality work deserving of a 50%. Like Board member Ms. Perry (1:18:30), I wonder if only expecting students to turn in work half done is reinforcing good work ethic. Furthermore, I question, as does Board member Edward Burroughs (1:32:45), whether this practice actually prepares students for life beyond high school, including college. True, research shows this helps students avoid giving up. However, in my experience, it also enables students to put forth only a minimum effort.

Lastly, the policies for make-up work are of great concern to me (#3 & #10). I am supportive of make-up work and have my own procedures for it within my classroom. But I do not think a uniform sliding scale is appropriate for the entire county. Each classroom and subject area has different needs. Even within my own classroom, the policy for homework is different from that of projects and classwork. For example, I assign five equations to solve for homework, which are due the following school day; I walk around the room and check for completion. After assigning their completion grades, we review the problems as a class. Should students who did not do the homework be allowed to turn it in for a 95% just by copying down the work and turning it in that day? I think not.

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Proposed Changes to Grading and Reporting Policy

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

100_3394A cross-functional team of advisors has made recommendations for significant changes in the way students in Prince George’s County are graded. The 28-member project team, which included parents, teachers, principals, administrators, community organizations, and union representatives, began studying PGCPS’s grading and reporting administrative procedures in February of 2015.

In a presentation made to the Board during a June 9th work session, project team member and high school Principal Gorman Brown outlined thirteen recommendations for revising the grading procedures:

  • Recommendation #1: Teachers will assign a quarter grade of no less than 50% for quarters one, two and three.
  • Recommendation #2: Behavior cannot be used as a grading factor.
  • Recommendation #3: Attendance and tardiness cannot be used as grading factor. Teachers shall allow makeup work, regardless of the reason for the student’s absence. (Make-up work must be returned within 10 days, and student grades may be reduced by 5% each day.)
  • Recommendation #4: Teachers must give grades of no less than 50% on all assignments for good faith effort.
  • Recommendation #5: Schools shall organize one parent conference per semester to discuss students’ grades.

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Charter Schools, Specialty Programs, and the Issue of Equitable Access

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

The lively discussion about equitable access to College Park Academy that took place during last month’s Board of Education meeting (beginning at 1:51:27 in the video) is must-watch TV—and not just for the moment when Board Chair Segun Eubanks told Edward Burroughs to “shut up and let the parliamentarian answer the question (at 1:54:50).”

Board Member Edward Burroughs (District 8) proposed amending the resolution granting a one-year extension to College Park Academy, a public charter school for students in grades six through nine which offers blended learning in partnership with the University of Maryland. Referring to the University of Maryland’s request that some slots be allotted to the children of University employees and to residents of College Park, Burroughs emphasized that all students, including “our most disadvantaged students,” should have access to the charter school, “not the select few, not those that come from the elite class in the county or in College Park.”

Burroughs’s amendment—which was adopted after a vote by the Board—adds the clause, “whereas the Board of Education wants to ensure equity and access for all students, regardless of socioeconomic status or zip code,” to the language of the resolution.

Contributing to the conversation surrounding equitable access, Board Member Jeana Jacobs (District 5) raised the question of whether children with special needs were being well-served at the school: “You do a review of our special needs population that’s there. There is some suggestion that they’re encouraged to home school or go to their neighborhood school.” (For Jacobs’s remarks, go to 2:06:20 in the video.)

What do the numbers say? Are “our most disadvantaged students” well-represented at College Park Academy? Data from the 2015 Maryland Report Card suggest that College Park Academy serves disproportionately few students needing special services, particularly when compared with the six closest neighboring middle schools (see map of area school locations here).

The table below shows the percentages of students who qualify for Free and Reduced Meals (FARMs), who have limited English proficiency (LEP), and who receive special education services, respectively, at the seven schools listed.

SmallChartv2

Percentages of students qualifying for Free and Reduced Meals, with Limited English Proficiency, receiving special education. An asterisk (*)  is used to indicate fewer than ten students in a category1. Source: 2015 Maryland Report Card, “Students Receiving Special Services”

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What is the Parent and Community Advisory Council?

by Lori Morrow

What does parent engagement mean to you? When my son started kindergarten eight years ago, parent engagement meant walking him to class each day, assisting during class parties, and occasionally volunteering at a PTA event. Over the years, my level of involvement grew as I took on the role of PTA President during my son’s 2nd and 3rd grade years. I began to attend school board meetings and hearings, and I became a familiar face to many of our local elected representatives.  Now with children in elementary and middle school, I am reminded daily that parent engagement shifts as our children mature and become more independent. I no longer walk my 7th grader to class, but it is still important to communicate with his teachers and understand how his school functions.

Last fall, after 8 years of involvement and advocacy, I was nominated for the PGCPS Parent and Community Advisory Council (PCAC) by my Board of Education representative, and in March of 2016, I received my official appointment letter to a 2-year term on the council.

Established by PGCPS Board Policy 1500, the Parent and Community Advisory Council serves as one of three advisory groups to the Board of Education. Members are

Officially the PCAC is tasked with providing “counsel and advice on issues pertaining to student academic achievement, parental and community engagement and public perception of PGCPS.” That leaves a lot of latitude for the Council Co-Chairs and members to set priorities and topics based on the current issues in our school system. Recent topics of discussion include specialty programs, Parent Engagement Office initiatives, communication about school consolidations, and school safety.

The Council meets monthly with Board of Education Chair Dr. Segun Eubanks, Board Member Curtis Valentine, and staff from the Parent and Community Engagement and Board of Education offices. Meetings are held on the second Monday of the month at 6 pm in the Sasscer Administration Building, in the small room that adjoins the Board Room. Meetings are public; guests are welcome to attend and observe meetings, but space is limited.

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