Shimla Anderson-Harris wasn’t completely sure where she was.
“Is this the Sasscer Administration Building?” she asked a stranger Tuesday night as she walked through the parking lot of the Prince George’s County Board of Education’s central office. “I’m trying to get to the school board meeting.”
It was. Prince George’s parents were invited to attend a school budget meeting that night. For the first time in her life, Anderson-Harris felt compelled to take part.
She has been a customer of Maryland’s second-largest school system for just 50 days. On Sept. 5, her 5-year-old, Cameron, got off the wait list to attend the coveted John Hanson French Immersion School in Oxon Hill.
Fifty days in, Anderson-Harris was already troubled. By the lack of parental involvement. By the lack of resources. By the low teacher morale. She wanted to be more proactive about finding solutions, so she attended her first hearing to meet the superintendent and learn effective techniques that parents use to lobby for change.
With every school year, there are parents like an Anderson-Harris. They begin a 13-year journey through this system, with the hope they can be an influential voice in the education policies affecting their kids. Sometimes, they become known in their communities for impassioned pleas to the school board and eloquent analysis of what’s ailing the 127,000-student system. Sometimes, they slow down. Sometimes, they fade away after too much frustration.
For Anderson-Harris, the decision to enroll her child in the school system was difficult in the first place. She and her husband debated going to a private school, ruminating over whether a public school was too big of a risk. They concluded that sending their child to a private school was against their principles.
“We saw ‘Waiting for Superman’ and decided we didn’t want to give up on the system,’’ Anderson-Harris said as she walked through the halls of the Upper Marlboro building for the first time. She took a seat in the back row. She pulled out a clipboard and began taking notes.
On Tuesday, 28 parents, teachers and staff asked for Superintendent William R. Hite Jr to be a little more heroic. As Anderson-Harris watched, they verbalized a timeline of troubles that might be ahead. Elementary school parents worried about the absence of art and music from their schools. Middle school parents complained about overcrowding. A high school parent complained about mold inside locker-rooms. Kenneth Haines, president of the teachers union, said “morale was the lowest it’s ever been.”
Hite tried to calm parents by explaining there are no proposed cuts yet because he has not yet drafted a proposal, which will come in December at the earliest.
He encouraged them to contact their state and county representatives to allocate more money to school coffers. The system, he said, receives $1,000 less per student than those in Fairfax; $3,000 less than in Montgomery and $7,000 less than in Arlington.
The meeting, the last of Hite’s listening tour, was unusually well attended. Thirty had signed up to speak, with two no-shows. At the previous budget meeting, only two parents showed up.
“We’ve never had this many individuals come to speak this early in the process,’’ he said.
There was another surprise for Anderson-Harris.
“I was surprised more people didn’t show up,’’ Anderson-Harris said. ”But I like all the information that he [the superintendent] gave. I want to know more about the budgeting, though, so I can understand what we can do to help everything. It was really good.”
Despite the parents’ worries, she felt hopeful. “But then again,” Anderson-Harris said, “I’m kind of new at all this.”