Why I Care About Prince George’s County Public Schools
“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.