Since Maryland lawmakers gave Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) unprecedented power over the state’s second-largest school system last year, the district has hired a new superintendent, gained six new school board members and started to slowly work on reforms to reinvent itself.
“This is just the beginning,” Baker said in a recent interview. “Now is where the change actually happens.”
Baker said he is aware that many residents did not like his aggressive late-session push last year to wrest control of the school system’s budget and superintendent from the county’s elected Board of Education, but he thinks most would now say, “You were right.”
Baker brought in Kevin M. Maxwell — the highly regarded former Anne Arundel County superintendent who began his career in Prince George’s schools — to take the helm of the system. And he has been positioning the school board — now led by a career education professional Baker handpicked — to point the system in the right direction.
Teachers, principals and residents “get a sense that things are changing . . . that we’re making our school system better,” Baker said.
For a system that consistently ranks at or near the bottom of Maryland’s school districts in academic performance, most people understand that a turnaround will take time. Though county schools had some improvement in the years leading up to Baker’s new-look system, some Prince George’s residents say they have yet to see concrete examples of significant additional progress in the past year.
Dave Cahn, who heads a residents group that challenged the state law that gave Baker his new authority, said he thinks Maxwell is doing “a decent job” but worries there is little evidence of academic improvement.
“The change even after a year seems only to be a change away from the people and toward the power of Rushern Baker, without significant difference to the education of our children one way or another,” said Cahn, who objected to creating a hybrid school board that allowed Baker and the County Council to appoint members alongside elected members.
Cahn, who attends every school board meeting, said there has been palpable tension among elected board members, appointed board members and Maxwell since the legislation took effect June 1, 2013. Two elected members resigned, and others have said they felt marginalized.
Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5), who chaired the previous board and remains a member, described the past year as “a little shaky.”
She said it is unclear whether the change in governance will have an impact on improving achievement. Given the urgency of Baker’s takeover effort last year, she said, she expected there to be more discussion about strategies for turning the system around.
“The jury is still out if we are going in the right direction,” Jacobs said. “And the reason I say that is because I don’t think any plans have been spelled out. We know all the research says it takes three to five years to see improvements, but you can’t get to that in three to five years if you don’t have a map to go by.”
In December, the school system entered into an agreement with a corporate foundation to help the board and Maxwell iron out some of their early problems.
“We’re working through the newness of the relationship,” Maxwell said. “I believe we’re in a much better place than when we first started.”
Maxwell said he is proud of his first budget, which includes an increase in specialty programs, more full-day pre-kindergarten classrooms and efforts to increase parental engagement. He anticipates that the school system, which ranks No. 23 out of the state’s 24 districts, will improve its standing during the next few years.
Baker recently challenged Maxwell to move the district up two spots, saying the improved ranking would help lure businesses and new residents to the county.
“That’s a doable thing if we continue to focus on the work we’re engaged in,” Maxwell said, noting a plan to target the county’s graduation rate and a credit recovery program.
Maxwell said that going forward he is focused on helping students who are not performing at grade level and challenging those who are at grade level.
“Part of that is making sure we are providing the appropriate programming,” he said. “Supports are one thing, but high-interest challenging programs is another piece of that. Whether that is STEM, robotics, languages or the arts, things that get kids excited about the work they are engaged in.”
One of his biggest challenges, Maxwell said, is to create consistency.
“I’ve seen some great things going on and some okay things going on,” said Maxwell, referring to his visits to the district’s 205 schools. “A third-grade classroom should be the same as the one down the hallway and the third-grade classroom across the county. In a large district, it’s a challenge.”
Adrion Howell, a parent who sends his second-grade daughter to the private Holy Trinity Episcopal Day School in Glenn Dale, said he thinks a shift has started to take place. Howell and his wife had been against sending their daughter to the county’s public schools after they saw their neighborhood school’s faltering test scores.
Howell said not much has changed at Glenn Dale Elementary School in the past year, but he has the sense that the district is heading in the right direction, and his family is considering the public schools again.
“The takeover of the school system has given a little more confidence in the public school system,” Howell said. “We’re definitely hearing positive things since the takeover and with Maxwell at the helm.”
Baker said Howell is one of many middle-class parents who are giving the public schools a second look.
“We want middle-class families to feel like there is a real choice,” Baker said. “And if you choose to send your child to the public school, they are going to get a quality education and they are going to be safe.”