Adrion Howell has strong connections to the Prince George’s County public school system. The 43-year-old lobbyist’s mother taught in the schools for 35 years, and Howell attended school there and worked as a substitute teacher in the county before going to Howard University Law School.
But, like many other middle-class parents in Prince George’s and in urban school districts across the country, when the time came for Howell’s daughter, Aaliyah, to attend Glenn Dale Elementary School, he instead enrolled her in a private school.
With Maryland’s second-largest school system poised for a leadership overhaul and a reconfigured school board next week, one of the major challenges facing County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) is how to convince the county’s middle class that his approach to fixing the schools will be successful enough to lure their children back into the public schools. Parents, particularly those who have opted out of the public schools for what they think is a better education elsewhere, say they are closely watching the transition.
Prince George’s has experienced middle-class flight before, when white families departed as the black population grew. But in what is now one of the wealthiest predominantly black counties in the country, more and more affluent black families have turned away from the public schools. Experts say the trend in Prince George’s is similar to what has happened in other large school systems that have struggled academically: The loss of middle-class families has led to a higher percentage of poor students using the public school system, less local accountability and waning community involvement.
“I think that there is a general consensus that something needed to be done,” Howell said of Baker’s attempt to take over the school system. State lawmakers approved a plan that allows Baker to select the new schools chief, appoint three members to the school board and name the board chair and vice chair. But parents, community activists and members of the board question how Baker is going to make improvements in the classroom, and he has offered few details.
“I guess the jury is still out in terms of how it will unravel. I’m just kind of watching it to see if it’s going to be any benefit to the system,” Howell said. “There are some chronic issues that need to be addressed and I’m not sure if this plan deals with those issues.”
Howell’s decision to send Aaliyah to Holy Trinity Episcopal Day School in Glenn Dale was not based on religion. It was rooted in the type of education and future he and his wife, Sharon, envision for their daughter. Howell said he initially was not averse to Aaliyah going to public school, but when he looked at his neighborhood school’s test scores, “we weren’t too enthused about what we were seeing.”
Although Prince George’s has seen gains in recent years on state testing, it continues to languish near the bottom of Maryland’s counties and is not keeping pace with its neighbors.
Baker has made turning around the school system a key focus of his administration, and one of his goals is to win over middle-class families.
“A lot of engaged parents live in Prince George’s County, but they don’t send their children to our public schools,” Baker said. “What we are going to do is talk to them and figure out why. . . . We are going to make sure they aren’t making the decision because they believe it is unsafe. A number of people do it based on the perception that they believe it is unsafe. Or based on the quality of the instruction that they think their child is going to get.”
Many experts and schools officials say a return of students from middle-class families is a key component to turning around struggling school systems.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said students from low-income families benefit from attending school “where your classmates expect to go on to college and act in a way that is conducive to that.”
He said research shows that students from poor families who attend schools where there are many students from middle-class families end up two years ahead of their peers. And, Kahlenberg said, middle-class parents are four times more likely to be members of parent-teacher associations and twice as likely to volunteer in class. He said parents with limited incomes do not have “bad values,” but some have transportation challenges or inflexible work hours that keep them from participating.
“Having a core set of parents that are actively watching over things benefits all students,” Kahlenberg said. “And middle-class schools, schools with a strong set of middle-class parents, perform better because of the involvement.”
It is unclear how many Prince George’s middle-class families home-school or send their children to private school. Briant Coleman, a spokesman for the school system, said the county does not track those students. But the school population has been dwindling and the percentage of poor students increasing significantly, evidence that middle-class students have been leaving the system.
“We don’t really know because we haven’t done a comprehensive study about where they’re going or why they’re going,” Christian Rhodes, Baker’s education liaison, said at a Washington Post “Behind the Headlines” forum on education Thursday. “It should be a goal to attract parents back to our district. We should try our darnedest to get them back.”
Enrollment in county public school has dropped an average of more than 1,300 students each year over the past decade, falling from 137,285 in the 2003-04 school year to 123,741 this year. Meanwhile, the number of Prince George’s students from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — a common measure of poverty — has become a strong majority in the county’s schools. In 2008, 44 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price meals; this year, 60 percent qualify.
The county has been looking at how to address the middle-class flight issue for at least a couple of years. Seeking to market the schools to affluent residents, county and school officials considered a campaign — “Made in Prince George’s” — that was to include successful graduates of Prince George’s public schools, including boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. The campaign never got off the ground.
Prince George’s School Board Chairman Verjeana Jacobs (District 5) said there are many factors in why people leave the county schools, and that most of the situations are individual and personal.
“We don’t deny that Prince George’s County has struggled as a school district. It has,” Jacobs said, noting recent improvements. “It doesn’t change unless we change it. . . . Parents are leaving, but parents are also coming.”
Jacobs said racial, ethnic and class diversity in the public schools is important: “There is always value in people from different backgrounds coming together to learn and borrow from each other.”
Nicole Nelson, vice president of the John Hanson Montessori School in Oxon Hill, said that she and many of her friends have considered pulling their children out of the county’s public school as class sizes expand. She said she has grown frustrated with the school system.
“Sometimes you stay because you want to help change, but sometimes the obstacles are overwhelming, fighting for the basic things that our students need,” Nelson said. “When we lose middle-class parents, it certainly hurts the school system because they bring a certain expectation of education.”
Al Harper, a real estate agent from Fort Washington, and his wife, Marleen, have such expectations. Instead of sending their niece and nephew to the neighborhood public school, they spend $3,400 a month to send the children to private school. They said they know others who have avoided the public schools in other ways.
“I know people who have bought investment property in Virginia so they have an address for their kids to go to school there,” Harper said. “I just thank God that we can afford to send them to school, where we have an option that is not totally dependent on the public schools.”
Sonya Brathwaite, a Bowie resident and the mother of two sons who attend private school, said private schools offer what she considers to be “the basics” that are not offered in some of the public schools.
“You get the art; you get the [physical education], you get a lot of things that they keep cutting” in the public schools, Brathwaite said.“At Glendale they have PE in a relocatable. It’s laughable. They get art breaks three or four times a year. I know budgets are tight, but there are certain things that every school should have.”
Brian Woolfolk, an attorney who lives in Fort Washington, said there are not enough options available for students in Prince George’s. There are specialty and charter schools, but there aren’t enough of them and the space is limited.
Aaliyah Howell’s classroom at Holy Trinity has 14 students. Her father said that when he recently volunteered for a career day at Kettering Elementary School, there were 34 students in the classroom, with one teacher.
“That is a big issue,” he said. “When you have that many kids in the classroom, there are questions about the attention that you can devote to one child.”
Howell wants to stop spending the $10,000 in tuition he pays each year for his daughter. But until the school system can address classroom size, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers and providing them with the resources needed to provide a “world-class” education, Howell said he won’t take a chance with his daughter’s future.