Ten Things PGCPS Can Do to Rebuild Community Confidence

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by Lori Morrow

This past weekend I read the graduation rate audit report from Alvarez & Marsal. Unfortunately I was not surprised by the findings. Over the past 9+ years, I’ve noticed a disconnect between Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) leadership/central offices and the way individual schools operate on a daily basis.

I suspect that any PGCPS parent could provide anecdotes about inconsistent policy and procedure compliance at the school level — from issues like withholding elementary school recess as punishment and discrepancies in meeting volunteer/visitor requirements, to inconsistencies in grading procedures or the abuse incidents in recent years. While the report did not find system-wide fraud, I believe we need a system-wide solution to balancing effective policies and procedures without drowning staff in processes and paperwork.

Earlier this week I wrote a list of things that I believe parents/guardians should do. Parents own a piece of the issues identified in the audit if they aren’t paying attention to grades and attendance, if they ask to have their child promoted when they shouldn’t be, or if they are focused just on the diploma instead of the education. Sadly what I often hear from parents and teachers is that it doesn’t matter what we do because we are powerless to change PGCPS. I spend too much time attending PGCPS events and meetings to accept that there is nothing we can do.

Here are my suggestions for ways PGCPS can partner with parents and staff to help rebuild trust and confidence in our school system:

  1. Host forums like last year’s “Community Summit on Safety & Accountability” to involve the community in identifying problems and searching for solutions.
  2. Involve PTA/PTO leaders in reviewing climate survey results at the school level so that they can assist in resolving ongoing concerns.
  3. Add an item to parent and teacher climate surveys that asks about staff adherence to policies and procedures.
  4. Implement new Administrative Procedures in the spring or beginning of the summer (instead of right before school starts) so that principals and central offices are thoroughly prepared to communicate them to parents and teachers by Back-to-School Night.
  5. Create an interactive video/training module on the Students Rights & Responsibilities Handbook for parents and students that can be posted online and shared at Back-to-School Nights or PTA meetings.
  6. Reach out to the Board of Education Parent and Community Advisory Council to provide feedback on policy and procedure changes.
  7. Host forums with PTA/PTO leaders at least twice during the school year to identify system-wide issues.
  8. Clarify the role of instructional directors as it relates to policy and administrative procedure compliance, and share that information with the community.
  9. Educate the community on the formal process for teachers, students, and parents/guardians who wish to report instances of non-compliance, and ensure that they will not face retaliation.
  10. Above all else, please put aside the politics and make our children’s EDUCATION the priority.

Ten Things Parents Can Do in Response to the PGCPS Graduation Rate Audit

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by Lori Morrow

Here are ten things parents and guardians can do in response to the Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) graduation rate audit:

  1. Read the Executive Summary of the report if you haven’t already, regardless of what grade your child is in.
  2. Read the sections of the Students Rights and Responsibilities Handbook that relate to attendance and graduation requirements (and the rest of it too if you can find the time).
  3. Make sure you are meeting your parent responsibilities by getting your child to school every day.
  4. Set high expectations for your children and provide them the support they need to meet them.
  5. Check grades and attendance regularly in the Schoolmax Family Portal and contact teachers if you see any errors/discrepancies.
  6. Attend parent teacher conferences to understand how your child is doing in school.
  7. Ask teachers and guidance counselors about graduation requirements that you don’t understand.
  8. Keep your own file (hardcopy or digital) of documentation for credit make-up work and Service Learning Hours.
  9. If you find that procedures are not being followed, bring that to the attention of someone at a higher level (whether that is the principal, the Instructional Director, the Ombudsman, the CEO or the Board of Education).
  10. If you see a better way to do things, bring that to the attention of someone as well. We can ALL find solutions.

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What We Know About the Prior Investigation into Alleged Fraudulent Graduation Rates

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

Earlier this month, four Prince George’s County board of education members raised hackles when they alleged that graduation rates in the county schools had been inflated through grade fixing and other tactics. The board members — Edward Burroughs, David Murray, Raaheela Ahmed, and Juwan Blocker — asked Governor Larry Hogan to order an investigation into the claims of fraud. Schools CEO Kevin Maxwell and other school officials have denied the allegations, citing an investigation by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) conducted earlier this year that cleared the schools of any wrongdoing.

But State Delegate Jay Walker has publicly questioned whether the MSDE investigation was sufficiently thorough, and on June 25 Governor Larry Hogan sent a letter requesting that the MSDE conduct a “complete, thorough, and exhaustive” investigation into the allegations.

So, why order a second investigation? How thorough was the investigation that was completed earlier this year? A letter sent to the U.S. Department of Education describes the previous MSDE investigation in detail. (Scroll to the end of the post to find the letter in full.) Here is what we know about the investigation:

  1. When did the investigation occur? The investigation was conducted in January 2017, but it was a follow-up on an informal inquiry that had occurred the previous year. In July 2016, Patrick Rooney, deputy director of the United States Department of Education’s (USDE) Office of State Support had sent a letter to Maryland State Superintendent Karen Salmon informing her of an anonymous tip made to his office, alleging that Schools CEO Maxwell was forcing grade changes in order to boost graduation rates. The letter included mention of two high schools in particular. After receiving the letter, Salmon contacted Maxwell about the allegations, and he denied them. Nothing further was done until the MSDE received a phone call in December 2016 from the USDE asking for an update on the investigation.
  2. Who conducted the investigation? The January investigation seems to have been conducted by a single person, Carol Williamson, chief academic officer of the Office of the Deputy for Teaching and Learning, and a former superintendent of Queen Anne’s County Public Schools. The investigation was preceded by a meeting between Williamson and Maxwell on December 12, 2016.
  3. What was the scope of the investigation? The investigation consisted of 1) looking at graduation rate data, 2) meeting with Kevin Maxwell, and 3) interviewing Maxwell and four others. Carol Williamson looked at the graduation data for the county for the past five years and for the two high schools mentioned in the complaint. She discussed the graduation data with Maxwell at the December meeting, and in January she interviewed Maxwell and four other PGCPS employees: an instructional director, a data management and strategy analyst, a special project officer*, and a deputy superintendent.
  4. How were the interviewees selected? How long was each interview? The employees interviewed were referred by Maxwell. It appears that none of the employees interviewed is in a school-based position. Williamson writes, “At the conclusion of our [December] meeting I asked him to identify others with whom I could talk. I asked to talk with the principals’ supervisors for the two high schools, with someone involved in grade collection on transcripts, with someone responsible for school counselors, etc.” Each interview was between 30 and 45 minutes long. According to Williamson, the discussions were thorough, and each person interviewed was “very proud of the work being done in the school system.” (See the letter below for a list of questions asked.)
  5. Who knew — or didn’t know — about the investigation? In a statement issued on June 20, Board Members Burroughs, Ahmed, Murray, and Blocker claimed that they were not informed of the MSDE investigation. They write, “We were absolutely unaware that MSDE had done an investigation on the matter earlier this year. Neither the CEO nor Board leadership informed us of it previous to yesterday evening, when it went out as a blast to school system stakeholders and the media.”