Update on Administrative Leave Situation in Prince George’s County Schools

An earlier post documented the large number of staff on administrative leave in the Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS).

by Justine C. 

IMG_6404Since I wrote about this issue on March 1, 2017, there has been increased reporting in the local media on the problem. School board members Edward Burroughs (Distrct 8), David Murray (District 1), Raaheela Ahmed (District 5), and Juwan Blocker (Student Member) have created a petition in April to review and revamp the administrative leave policy. Their stated goals are to host listening sessions and create recommendations for improvements to the current policies and procedures.

In addition, this month, PGCPS’s Office of Monitoring, Accountability and Compliance will be providing any recommendations they have for changes to policies and procedures regarding student safety. (See minutes from March 7 Policy, Legal, and Legislative Committee Meeting.) The office was created on July 1, 2016, to oversee the development and implementation of procedures and protocols related to student safety.

In response to a Public Information Act request, PGCPS reports that as of May 2, 2017, there are 153 teachers — compared with 160 on January 31 — and 248 additional staff on administrative leave for a total of 401 personnel, indicating either a decline in the number of reports or faster investigations.

PGCPS also indicated in their response to my Public Information Act request that they implemented a tracking system in early April that includes the disposition of cases, referring to whether or not a staff person was reprimanded, terminated, or some other course of action was taken. However, they do not track the amount of time a case takes to investigate and how long teachers are out of the classroom on administrative leave.

Response to the Public Information Act request is embedded below.

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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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Every Comment From the Jan 24 Budget Hearing

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

The Prince George’s County Board of Education held its first public hearing on the fiscal year 2018 operating budget on January 24, at Charles Herbert Flowers High School. A Board of Education budget work session immediately preceded the hearing.

Fifteen members of the public spoke at the hearing. Their comments are recapped below:

  1. At 1:45:23 in the video, special educator: Increase the amount of funding for special education beyond what is proposed in the budget. “Special educators are leaving the county and field of special education in droves.” Special educators spend twelve to fourteen hours a week on legally required compliance paperwork. “Time spent on compliance paperwork is time spent out of the classroom and away from servicing our students.
  2.  At 1:48:02, special educator, paraprofessional in autism program: Adequately budget for our special education and autism programs. Our special education programs are not adequately staffed to safely manage the students. Special educators are close to burnout. “How many times must I document that a student ran away or tried to throw himself down the stairs before an additional staff person is approved? Also, when a specialist comes to observe our students to assess staffing or proper placement, why not have him or her actually do the job for an entire day instead of making an assessment based on a 15 or 20 minute slice of time?”
  3. At 1:50:57, special educator: It has become increasingly hard to do the job without adequate staffing. Describes a “day in the life of a special education teacher,” including assessing newly referred students to special education, writing IEPs, preparing paperwork for meetings, collecting data, collaborating with teachers, completing follow-up paperwork for IEP meetings, writing progress reports, providing assessment accommodations for students, as well as general school duties such as lunch duty. It is often necessary to spend several hours over the weekend working on
  4. At 1:53:42, special educator: “Special educators often fulfill two distinct jobs: We’re case managers, and we’re specialized instructors. However, we only have 45 minutes of planning time to fulfill these dual roles. . . .The overwhelming amount of time required to complete paperwork diminishes the amount of time that we have to provide supports in the classroom, with less specialized instruction for students with disabilities. . . I’m here today because so many of my colleagues leave the field of special education each year, due to the overwhelming pressure of compliance, as paperwork often becomes a priority over teaching.” Increased special education funding is needed for additional special educators, instructional specialists, and IEP clerks.
  5. At 1:56:43, parent of 9th grader at Bowie High School who has recently transitioned from private school: “As my daughter complained about sweltering classrooms at the start of the school year and frigid classrooms last month, I have to ask, is academic excellence really a priority? As my daughter has had a substitute teacher for science the entire semester and about three weeks for math, I must ask, how can we expect her to excel on the standardized tests . . . ?” Pay attention to a hierarchy of needs. There are tough choices to be made. Should such items as culture training for teachers (at around $610,000) and additional world languages funding ($1.2 million) compete for basic needs such as heating and cooling, or instruction in math and English?
  6. At 1:59:45, parent of a 5th grade Heather Hills Elementary student: There is confusion surrounding next year’s placement of some rising middle school Talented and Gifted (TAG) students from Heather Hills Elementary. Students who had anticipated attending the TAG center at Kenmoor Middle School next year received a letter stating that they must enroll in the TAG program at Benjamin Tasker Middle School instead. However, there has been no other mention of a TAG center at Benjamin Tasker Middle School. After numerous phone calls, parents were able to learn nothing about a potential TAG center at Tasker. The request is that students should be permitted to remain at Kenmoor until the TAG center at Tasker is fully operational.
  7. At 2:02:24, community member and parent of PGCPS alumni: Was hired in 2011 as a senior purchasing specialist, and subsequently discovered and reported waste, fraud, and abuse in the school system. The Strategic Plan implemented in 2016 and scheduled to go through 2018 does not actually address the goals of academic excellence, high-performing workforce, safe and supportive environments , family and community engagement, and organizational effectiveness. “How is it that we have a plan that went from 2016 to 2018, and you have not shown us any data or statistics that support what you’re doing?”
  8. At 2:05:25, community member and “watchdog advocate”: The budget document contains several discrepancies, and it is difficult, in some cases, to track where the money is going. For example, 17 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) positions are listed at a cost of $2.8 million to develop the Strategic Plan and obtaining grants in support of the plan.
  9. At 2:08:13, student at Whitehall Elementary School: School lacks adequate heating. “It is hard being so cold in my classroom. Sometimes when I write, I shiver . . . It can be hard to take tests too, because all I can think about is how cold I am.”
  10. At 2:09: 14, PTA president at Whitehall Elementary School: There are currently 833 open work orders related to heat for the 208 schools in the county. Whitehall’s heat is not working properly, even after months of requests for repairs. Classroom temperatures have been documented to be as low as 49 degrees, and kids are wearing coats and long johns in the classroom. Whitehall Elementary is overenrolled, with 576 students at a school that has a capacity for 420 students. “Please consider allowing room in your budget to repair so many of our buildings that our failing your scholars. You cannot continue to have high expectations academically while requiring such low maintenance standards of yourselves.” 

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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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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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A Teacher’s Perspective on the Junior Achievement Finance Park

by Natalie Barnes

IMG_7453When I first heard that all eighth graders would be participating in the Junior Achievement Finance Park curriculum, I was not looking forward to the experience. I assumed that it would be just one more thing to try to fit into the already jam-packed school year. However, in the end, I was delighted by the experience and look forward to participating in the future.

I attended a training at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year that shared highlights of the curriculum and took us on a tour of the location. I was still a bit confused, but the coordinators promised that once we looked at our curriculum guides, it would make much more sense. And they were right. The curriculum guide was well put-together, with color-coded organization, clear instructions, and detailed explanations. It also provided teaching suggestions, extension activities, and probing questions. The county required that we only cover a few lessons (shared between social studies and math class), which were mandatory material for the experience. However, there was a plethora of additional material for students who needed differentiation or teachers who had more time to further explore the content. Overall, the curriculum took approximately a week in math class and a week in social studies, although teachers were free to customize this for their classes as long as they met the minimum lesson requirements.

Each student had his or her own workbook.  These were consumable workbooks that were designed to be engaging to students with various graphics as well as plenty of activities and space to work—all in full color.

The fourteen required lessons covered four main topics:

  • Income
  • Saving, Investing, and Risk Management
  • Debit and Credit
  • Budget

Income and Budget were covered in math classes while the remaining topics were taught in social studies classes. While many situations were geared to future careers and salaries, students also spent a great deal of time analyzing situations and jobs that are common for middle and high school students. Many of my students were engaged as they examined current and future potential situations, applying the principles of financial literacy to their own lives. This became even more true as we prepared to attend the Financial Park.

The entire field trip was free of charge to students, ensuring that every student could come. The buses were prompt and because they were not school buses, students were excited to attend, and they felt like this was a special experience. When we arrived, they were ushered into the Financial Park auditorium to receive a brief overview of the day’s activities. But after only a few moments, they were split into groups and assigned a volunteer who would serve as their group leader for the day. Many of the volunteers were teachers, parents, student teachers, or community members. The students were often pleased to be working with an adult they knew. It was particularly advantageous to some of our students with learning disabilities or other special needs as they were able to be placed with supportive chaperones who allowed them to participate fully. We had a group who spoke very little English, which was assigned to a chaperone who also spoke Spanish, allowing the day to be conducted bilingually, truly allowing all the students to engage with the activities.

As they were assigned groups, each student received an iPad and a fictional scenario about their job, salary, marital status, and family situation. From there, they determined their monthly gross income and monthly net income, using the iPad. On the iPad, they then set a budget, allotting money for housing, transportation, utilities, food, clothing, entertainment, etc. During the budgeting time, they explored the Finance Park, which has various stations devoted to each of these categories, allowing students to research costs before making a final decision. After lunch, students then revisited each of these stations and actually “purchased” items. They had to first decide on renting an apartment or buying a house and then owning a car or using public transportation. Many times they had frustrating realizations that they simply could not afford the home or car of their dreams and had to settle for less expensive options. Once they had determined their housing and transportation options, students were then given a “debit card” linked to their iPad and account. They went shopping to the various stations around the Finance Park, buying different products and quickly realizing that their money supply was not endless. After their purchasing time was up, they worked through reflection activities with their chaperone and made any final changes to their monthly spending. One aspect of the reflection included a random event that caused them to spend money (e.g. the car needed repairs, the refrigerator stopped working, a child broke her arm).

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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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