Archive for May 2011
“The worst political scandal in the county since the 1960s should be the jolt needed so residents fully admit that corruption is a reality, not just a perception, and then definitively end it.” —Robert McCartney, Washington Post (May 18, 2011)
I agree with his assessment 100 percent. As I stated last year in my post “We Have Met The Enemy, and It Is Us,” we have nobody but ourselves to blame for being uninformed and voting on name recognition, a pastor’s endorsement, or a nice campaign photo when we go to the polls (if you go). Please, be ashamed of what Jack Johnson has done to tarnish the County’s reputation, but let’s all be ashamed of ourselves for not doing better, because we can.
A guest post by “RF”
Pgd9politico’s heartfelt post prompts me to add my two cents to this important discussion.
While I can’t claim Ivy League pedigree, I can proudly say I am a product of the public school system that is widely acknowledged to produce the best-performing students in the world. I am also proud that my mother taught in that highly successful school system for 30 years.
In my short time in PG county, I have tried to do my small part to advocate for our children and schools, and I largely agree with Pgd9politico’s observations about the PG county schools. There is no doubt the system could be run more efficiently and we should expect our children to get a better educational experience.
Absent from the whole school system discussion over the last year, however, has been the factor I consider to be the most important one: the crucial role of parents. Based on my son’s experience this past year at Accokeek Academy, I can say that his teachers have been pushing the kids harder than the teachers in his Howard County school last year and the ones in his previous Midwestern school where proficiency levels hovered in the 99% range. Thus, based on our limited experience, the major problem seems not to be in the school or with the teachers – at least when it comes to academic achievement. This leaves parents as the main suspect. And, when Accokeek Academy PTSA meetings are attended by 10-20 parents on average (out of a student body of about 1,200), my suspicions grow stronger.
We as parents really need to step up if we want our children to succeed. We can’t expect teachers to do it alone. This is the line of thought I hear from many teachers across the nation when proposals are made to tie teacher pay to student achievement. Can we really expect teachers to produce miracles when education is not made a priority at home, parents don’t set high expectations, children are not read to at home, and kids are sent to school tired and hungry?
Of course, it is hard to fault parents for not having the time to focus on their kids’ school activities when they are juggling two or three jobs just to make ends meet. But, for most parents, education really should be a priority. All of us may not have the time or interest to volunteer for PTO activities or attend Board of Education meetings, but we should find the time and interest to set high expectations for our kids and devote enough time to ensure our children are well equipped to succeed in their academic endeavors.
Even the most ambitious and capable school reformers can take a struggling school system only so far. For all our children to succeed and get a good education, both the school system AND parents must do their part.
What makes this problem even harder is the fact that private schools provide an escape for many concerned and dedicated parents. Considering that Pgd9politico has made the determination that her children will be attending a private school, her dedication to the PG county public schools amazes me. But, when her kids enter the private school, will she have the time, energy and interest to dedicate to the needs of her kids’ school as well as the public school system? Even if she manages to do that, how many other parents who send their kids to private schools show this level of dedication to public schools?
The private school issue is a classic example of the individual and collective interests colliding. For an individual parent, the decision to send a child to a private school is often a good one. But, taken collectively, I consider these decisions to be a calamity for our children and our communities. Imagine if all these dedicated and committed parents sent their kids to our public schools? Purely from an arithmetic perspective, having these kids in our public schools would surely lift the average proficiency scores significantly. The presence of these kids would likely impact the schools’ educational atmosphere in a positive manner. It is also safe to assume that a parent who sends his/her kids to a private school cares about education and the quality of schools more than your average parent. Thus, imagine the impact we could have if all these concerned parents focused their energies on demanding improvements in our public schools and dedicated their time to helping with those improvements. (Interestingly, in the country with the world’s highest performing students, private schools are nearly an unknown phenomenon.)
Forgetting the fantasy about private school kids returning to our public schools, how do we encourage more parental involvement and caring? – I don’t have any good answers to this crucial question. Board of Education, school administrators and teachers can surely play a supportive role. But the real impetus and drive must come from somewhere else. Maybe we could start with churches. In addition to tutoring programs Pgd9politico mentions, maybe our church leaders need to use their bully pulpit to preach the gospel about the importance of education. Maybe other, more creative initiatives can be developed. No matter what, I strongly believe we must start somewhere. We really can’t ignore the future of all our kids.
A rising tide lifts all boats.
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” –Henry Adams, A.B. 1858, in The Education of Henry Adams
I begin this blog entry with this quote, because as I have moved along a trajectory over the past few months, from concerned parent to political blogger to a voice for the community, I have always done it because I believe great teachers have the potential to mold our children’s future in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. Not secretaries, or data entry clerks, or technology contractors, or recruiters. I have always cared about hiring, keeping, and rewarding great teachers, because they set the course for our children’s love of lifelong learning that I believe makes our youth successful no matter what careers they pursue. That has certainly been the case for me, and it why I have been passionately speaking out about the education budget recently.
I do remain frustrated about the $90,000 secretaries, $75,000 data entry clerks, and many $100,000 salaried central office bureacrats. Are these positions really needed during a time of fiscal restraint? Certainly. Why?Prince George’s County Public School system is the 18th largest district in the nation, and because of its size, it is necessary to operate more like a corporate entity with an educational mission. Dr. Hite must manage like a CEO more often than he is able to operate as an educational reformer, for which he was so successful throughout his career. Perhaps, therein lies the core of our problems.
Looking back, my own education was quite different from what my children are being offered if they enrolled in Prince George’s County schools today (which they won’t). I was in a rural district, where school board members were elected leaders who volunteered their time to provide oversight. They represented engaged parents, community leaders, and members of the faith community. I don’t recall the name of my superintendent, and he didn’t really matter anyhow. The principal was in charge of whatever school you attended, and that person was responsible for making the vast majority of decisions that affected your school on a daily basis. People overwhelmly voted for school levies, trusted their elected school officials, and valued the quality education their children received.
My father taught eighth grade science for more than 25 years in this same school district, and he is obviously where I first gathered a great deal of respect for the work that our teachers do. He deeply cared about the success of each and every student that passed through his classroom. He was known for being strict, and many of my classmates confided that they did not want to get in trouble in his class because he would surely discipline you with detention, a “no talk” rule, or a trip to the principal’s office if your behavior necessitated it.
Because I traveled to and from school with my dad every day, I also became one of his after-school assistants, helping organize papers he had to grade, assisting classmates with homework when they had questions, and keeping kids company who were stuck in his after-school detention. I saw how much he cared about every student, whether they were struggling to understand the periodic table for the chemistry unit, or just needed a safe space to hang out and get their homework done instead of returning to an empty house after school, he always went the extra mile to help them.
My lengthy work in his classroom convinced me that being a teacher required not only great skill, but a big heart for the kids and willingness to work well beyond the limits of your monetary compensation, because that’s what children deserved. No other cog in the wheel of the school system besides teachers could ever provide that. I am certain that I could never do this job, I just was not gifted with the talent to do it. But that’s where my passion for public education began, and it has only grown from there.
In high school, I was fortunate to have an English teacher that I truly believe changed the entire course of my life. He challenged me to think creatively, read voraciously, press beyond my normal limits, and instill a love of learning I have kept with me to this day. He was one of the first people (besides my parents) who told me that he knew I was destined for something great, and wrote that in my recommendation to an Ivy League university. I was later accepted, and the first from my high school to ever attend a school in that league. I’m so glad many others have since followed in my footsteps, but that teacher directed me on a path I never would have imagined for myself otherwise, which led me to where I am today.
In college, I volunteered to tutor at-risk children through a program that was run by my sorority. I loved it so much that I began traveling to students’ homes to help them improve their reading and writing skills. It wasn’t just the learning, but it was the time I invested in getting to know each child and their family that mattered to me. After college, I didn’t dwell very much on the kind of public education students were getting. As a young professional in Washington, DC, I was focused on my career and social life, and not much beyond that.
A neighbor who was leading a charter school in Anacostia changed all that for me. He asked me to volunteer to serve on their school board. He needed diverse perspectives, and he thought my experience in local government and budget management could really help the school. They didn’t need my help, as they were one of the few charter schools making AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) and had an excellent reputation. However, I had time to spare, and living by the biblical mantra that “to whom much is given, much is required,” I agreed to do it.
One of the things I learned from that experience is the important of having committed school leaders who are empowered to make decisions in cooperation with engaged parents and community leaders. We paid our teachers the best salaries, but we also expected them to deliver. If they did not, they were fired. We addressed discipline issues directly with parents, and the children were held to a high standard. We addressed every concern raised at our monthly board meetings, and kept a checklist to ensure issues were resolved. I heard complaints that ranged from the need for serving a healthy breakfast and lunch each day, to making sure we had the latest books in the library, to improving the system for safely transporting children to and from school each day.
The children who attended were given incredible opportunities they could never have experienced otherwise, with fundraisers that paid for trips to see historic sites, national parks, and other parts of the country outside of Washington, DC. Their parents received help too, with GED and adult education classes offered on weekends. We had limited administrative overhead, and the school focused almost entirely on the reading, math, technology, and science/social studies skills they would need to succeed. And yes, this was a school in Anacostia, where poverty rates are high, public schools were failing, and many had lost hope that children could succeed.
Now while I am not advocating that charter schools are the answer, what I do believe is that we can improve our schools by empowering our school leaders and engaging the community more comprehensively to keep them accountable. That is possible no matter what neighborhood you live in. In my community of Accokeek, our church offers free tutoring from education professionals every Wednesday. What if my church teamed up with other local churches to make sure this was offered five days a week? What if parents of public school children engaged with their neighbors to ask for their service in supporting Accokeek Academy, such as my neighbor did many years ago when I volunteered in Anacostia? What if we had a local board of volunteers, rather than paid elected officials with health plans, who were making decisions about teacher performance, resolving discipline issues, and ensuring that the school has the resources it needs for trips to Camp Schmidt and places far beyond that? I argue that we would have a very different school system, instead of the one that ranks at the bottom of the state of Maryland.
Our school system has gotten so large, and the administrative bureaucracy so unwieldy, that we are not capable of managing it in the best interest of our children, or even employing Dr. Hite to use his creativity to reform our public education system, which is what his accomplishments indicate he should actually be doing. If we create a structure that requires schools to be more accountable to the neighborhoods they serve, we no longer need to justify the employment of $90,000 secretaries and six-figure salaried managers for any reason. The final stop is the principal’s office, and there is no need for attorneys to mediate issues if the local board of community leaders will address it.
While this is probably only my version of utopia, I do think there is a kernel of truth to what I have pointed out here. Beyond that, I felt it was necessary to explain my background in more detail, so that the community understands I am not just a troublemaker trying to “mislead” the public with inaccurate statements (read Dr. Hite’s blog entry about this characterization of me and other advocates). Nor am I just an angry taxpayer who thinks all local government officials are corruptly and intentially committing acts of waste, fraud, and abuse. Remember, I am also a local government employee in my professional life. I am not aiming to use this issue as a platform for elected office, as many might think. My intentions are pure, my motives are clear, and the history I have just provided to you should prove that to be the case.
When it comes right down to it, I deeply care about our children – all of them. Everyone should be able to have the confidence that when they send their children off to school, they will receive the best education that is possible. My children will not be attending public school, because I do not believe that PGCPS has proven they are capable of providing them with a high-quality education. I am fortunate enough to afford a private education for them. However, it’s not just my children who are the future leaders, I believe every child deserves an equal opportunity to succeed and that’s why I continue to fight this battle despite the opposition.
I will wrap up this extensive commentary by sharing a quote from Geoffrey Canada, the leader of the Harlem’s Children Zone, who was featured in the recent documentary Waiting for Superman (and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should):
“One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist. Cause even in the depths of the ghetto you just thought he was coming… She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”
Collectively, we have the power to act as “Superman” (or “Superwoman”) for our children. As I have said all along, I don’t believe that the Prince George’s County Public Schools Superintendent has proposed a budget that puts children first and provides them with a high quality education, and I don’t believe throwing $8 million more into their coffers will fix it. Only caring and committed people can do that, and that requires advocacy, effort, and investment by all of us.
From the May 11, 2011 County Council Public Budget Hearing:
Good evening Chairwoman Turner, Vice-Chair Olson, honorable members of County Council, County staff, and fellow residents. My primary reason for being here is that I am a concerned parent worried about how funds are being spent on our schools. The School Board had to make many painful cuts that were approved in their FY 2012 budget. While some monies have been restored, hundreds of Prince George’s County Public Schools teachers have been told that they no longer have jobs after June 30, 2011. Fewer teachers means more students in every classroom, and I’m sure you know that means for the quality of my children’s education.
Meanwhile, the School Board convinced us that if we went to Annapolis and requested that $20 million be reinstated into their budget, they could avoid teacher layoffs. We did that, and the Maryland General Assembly reinstated $14 million of the State’s contribution back to Prince George’s County budget, while the County Executive committed an additional $17 million in his proposed budget. They have now received an additional $31 million, which puts them back at the 2011 funding level. So why are teachers, guidance counselors, media specialists, and other educators still being laid off? This is one of many unanswered questions you must address before you approve the final FY 2012 budget.
When you’re looking for answers to these questions, I suggest that you begin by examining the 723 PGCPS staff who make more than $100,000, because only 51 of those employees are directly involved in educating our children. Many central office staff are mid-level bureaucrats who do no demonstrate any value added in achieving the goals of the School’s Master Plan or put children first. Additionally, these central office staff are directly to blame for the mistakes that were made in hiring foreign teachers that have cost tapayers $5.9 million in federal fines and back wages. I urge you to ask Dr. Hite and the School Board to look at where else cuts can be made and keep teachers in our classrooms.
I’ll end by sharing a quote I have used as I have traveled around this county speaking about this issue: ” We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, but we forget that he is someone today.” My oldest daughter will be entering kindergarten soon, and I have made the difficult decision to enroll her in a private school, because I have lost faith in our public schools’ capacity to provide her with the best education. Please restore my confidence by asking tough questions about the PGCPS budget now, because we can’t afford to wait until tomorrow for the answers.
As some of you already know, Prince George’s County Public Schools had to make many painful cuts that the School Board approved in their FY 2012 budget, back on February 24, 2011. Since that time, hundreds of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) teachers have been told that they no longer have jobs after June 30, 2011. Fewer teachers means more students in every classroom, and I’m sure you know what that means for the quality of your child’s education.
However, the Maryland General Assembly reinstated $14 million of the State’s contribution back to Prince George’s County budget, and the County Executive is committing an additional $17 million in his proposed budget currently being discussed by the County Council. For those of you who may have forgotten, PGCPS administrators and school board members convinced citizens that if they went to Annapolis and requested that $20 million be reinstated into their budget, they could avoid teacher layoffs. Since the FY 2012 School Board budget was approved, they have now received an additional $31 million, which puts them back at the 2010 funding level. So why are teachers, guidance counselors, media specialists, and other educators still being laid off? This is one of many questions we must press the Council to ask of the School Board before they approve the County’s final budget later this month.
Please do not be lulled into thinking that the School Board’s budget problems are solved, or that your child’s public school education is fine, because of the additional money provided to PGCPS. All we know so far is that some of the money will be used to pay federal fines for our hiring practices used in recruiting foreign-born teachers, that Dr. Hite has continued to grow his administrative bureaucracy through reorganization it so it’s difficult to determine if any serious cuts are being made, and that those $90,000 secretaries and $75,000 data entry clerks are still on the PGCPS payroll after June 30, 2011. Meanwhile, your child’s teacher may not be there next year.
Only you have the power to change that. Please join us for a final forum tonight (May 5, 2011), at Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton from 6:30pm – 9pm, to discuss the questionable issues in the PGCPS budget. We will develop a list of concerns to present to County Council at their budget public hearing on May 11. It’s not too late to urge our elected officials to change course, but it must be more than a small number of individuals to press them for action. Please come and participate. We need to hear from you.