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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Teachers Concerned about Time-Consuming Test for Kindergarteners

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

IMG_6404I have been a teacher in Maryland for over 33 years and I have never had anything impact my instruction negatively as the administration and recording of the KRA.  — from MSEA’s Survey of Kindergarten Teachers, (Appendix I, p. 34)

Maryland’s Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA), introduced during the 2014-2015 school year, is designed to measure a child’s readiness for school in four areas: Language & Literacy, Mathematics, Physical Well-being & Motor Development, and Social Foundations.

On the surface, this sounds reasonable: Teachers have always assessed their incoming students’ skills, so that they can better meet the needs of the class. But the outcry from kindergarten teachers over this new assessment was so loud that the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) asked that the use of the KRA be suspended until “critical revisions” are made. A 100-plus page report issued by MSEA documents survey data and narrative responses from hundreds of kindergarten teachers.

The feedback has been overwhelmingly negative. Teachers are deeply concerned about the loss of instructional time, and they see little value in the data generated by the test.

  • The test is administered by the child’s kindergarten teacher — not an assistant or other staff member — on a one-on-one basis. Since the assessment occurs during the school day, instructional time is lost as teachers pull students for testing and substitutes take their place. Here are comments from three teachers who responded to MSEA’s survey:
    • The time used to administer the KRA…could be used to pull small groups, work one-on-one with students, provide enrichment to students, collect data for progress reports, etc. (p.2).
    • Some of the fun projects we do in the beginning of the year, that go along with the curriculum, have gone by the way side (Appendix I, p. 58).

    • The first few months of school are the most important in setting routines, expectations and getting to know my children. I have spent more hours ignoring their needs or handing off instruction to substitutes then I can count (Appendix I, p.1).
  • Initially, teachers were told that the test would take about 45 minutes for each child. But according to the Maryland State Education Association’s (MSEA) survey of kindergarten teachers, about 80% of teachers found that the test took more than hour to administer. Nearly one in five teachers (17.7%) reported that the test took over two hours. Multiplying this by the number of kindergarteners in each class means many hours of lost instruction.

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Writing Across the Curriculum: One Math Teacher’s Experience

In December, the Washington Post published an article describing the new literacy program in Prince George’s County Public Schools that requires teachers of all subjects to teach literacy skills in the classroom. One middle school math teacher has shared with us her experience with the new program. She has asked to remain anonymous.

Last fall, I learned that my students would be required to complete a literacy assignment as part of the new county-wide literacy initiative. Previously, our focus had been on the Formative Assessment for Maryland Educators (FAME) tasks. These tasks combine math and literacy skills by having students solve real-life problems and explain their thinking. With the new program, in addition to completing the FAME tasks, students would write five-paragraph essays.

During a subsequent school-wide professional development meeting, I learned that each department across our school would be completing the same writing task, which mirrors the SAT essay. Social studies would complete the assignment in October, science in November, math in December, creative arts, health, and physical education in January, and language arts and world languages in March. The goal is for each department to conduct the same activity with the students to see if there is marked improvement in student reading and writing across content areas.

Every prompt is nearly identical. The basic task takes the form, “Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his audience that [insert author’s claim here].”

Here is the one used for my class:

writingPrompt

With each prompt is an essay for students to read and analyze.  For math students across the county in December, Grade 6 and 7 students read an excerpt from Math Doesn’t Suck, a book written by Danica McKellar and Grade 8 students read the article “Teaching Kids Why Math Matters” by Cindy Donaldson in order to complete the analysis of an argument writing prompts.

We are told to have the students complete this assignment in ten steps.

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