Prince George’s starts academic year with initiative to transform struggling schools


Quiana Reedus, 35, greets 4-year-old Damarco Lathern, who visits Barnaby Manor Elementary School with his parents before the new school year begins. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

For the first time in years, hundreds of Prince George’s County 4-year-olds will spend an entire day in a pre-kindergarten classroom when schools open Monday, part of coordinated county government and school system efforts to improve academic achievement.

The full-day pre-K program is one of several initiatives offered this year at schools in communities historically mired in poverty, unemployment and violent crime.

County officials this week plan to formally announce their “Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative” schools pilot program, which includes full-day pre-K, expanded after-school activities, interventions for dropouts and truants, and other services to address some of the county’s educational challenges.

The schools program, which will cost $7.8 million, is part of a broader effort focusing on lowering crime, increasing job opportunities and improving access to health care and affordable housing in six troubled neighborhoods, including Langley Park, Oxon Hill and Suitland. The new program for the schools is a key component of County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s plan to turn around Maryland’s second-largest school system, which has long been one of the worst-performing jurisdictions in the state.

The schools that will be targeted have the highest percentage of new teachers, highest dropout and truancy rates and some of the lowest standardized test scores in the county.

“It is critical,” Baker (D) said, noting his desire to raise the county’s overall profile by boosting some of its inside-the-Beltway communities. “If you look at the improvements we’ve made in public safety, trash pickup and health care, we’ve done a really good job of addressing the services in the high-needs areas — except for the schools.”

The Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative grew out of a successful police department crime-prevention effort, with county officials deciding that all government agencies — including social services, the health department, police and schools — needed to work together to improve the quality of life in the county’s most troubled neighborhoods.

“For me, the missing link with what we are doing with TNI is the school system,” Baker said. “Now this allows us to focus our services.”

Schools chief Kevin M. Maxwell said that having the additional funds to offer grants for mentoring programs and other interventions — and working with the county health and social services departments — will improve outcomes.

“By working together and coordinating our efforts, we’ll be much stronger,” Maxwell said.

The school system is restoring full-day pre-K at seven schools and adding two classes to another school after cutting the program two years ago because of budget constraints.

Viola Lynch, principal at Barnaby Manor Elementary School in Oxon Hill, where less than 60 percent of third-graders passed the Maryland state math exam, said pre-K students for the past two years have spent 21 / 2 hours in class. The additional time in full-day classes will not only give students more instruction, but it also gives schools an earlier opportunity to identify students’ needs, she said.

“The students will have a longer time to grasp the concepts and more time for individual support,” Lynch said. “Starting them early, you’re are giving them a stronger foundation.”

At Central High School in Capitol Heights, which has a dropout rate of 25 percent, Principal Charoscar Coleman said he looks forward to the county’s plan to offer a “summer bridge program” for eighth-graders entering high school.

Currently, parents and their children attend high school orientation for a couple of days. Under the bridge program, students would spend several days over two weeks getting ready for the rigors of high school.The program also would allow school officials to identify students needs.

“This would give us an opportunity to proactively provide support,” Coleman said.

The initiative will provide money for Central High to expand programs such as Hillside Work Scholarship Connection, which provides academic support, mentoring and part-time employment opportunities to at-risk students.

Montre Dupree’s son, Adam Lindsay, is a senior at Suitland High School who has participated in Hillside for the past three years. Dupree said programs such as Hillside are needed for students like Adam, who was struggling with class work and had little to do after school. Adam needed additional support in math, English and social studies.

“I’m sure the likelihood of him getting involved in the negative aspects of the community have decreased because of this program,” Dupree said.

Adam’s grades are still on a “roller coaster” at Suitland High, but he is more focused, she said.

James Richardson, the principal at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, where 85 percent of the majority-immigrant student population is eligible for free and reduced-price meals, said during discussions with school and county officials that he asked for money to pay for transportation from after-school activities.

With additional money from the initiative, Richardson will offer a tennis and hip-hop dance workshop to students next month. Eventually, he wants to start lacrosse and cricket programs.

“I believe in educating the whole child,” Richardson said. “If a child is excited about coming to school, then he is going to learn.”

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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