Top Prince George’s school limits students from outside its boundary

Chisom Nwaneri didn’t want to attend her neighborhood school in Prince George’s County because she didn’t think it would offer her the type of classes she would find at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, the county’s leading public high school based on statewide test scores.

So when she didn’t pass the entrance exam for Roosevelt’s regular science and technology program, Nwaneri applied for an alternative at the same school: the Quality Education in Science and Technology (Quest) program, which was created in 1990 to increase the number of black students taking math, science and engineering classes there.

“It was a great day for me,” Nwaneri, 17, of Hyattsville said of her acceptance. “I just screamed.”

On Tuesday, when the honor student is expected to be awarded her diploma, she will be one of the last out-of-boundary graduates to participate in Quest. The program now only draws from minority students who live in Roosevelt’s Greenbelt neighborhood.

Parents, students and some school officials have been lamenting the end of the special transfers into the Quest program, arguing that the path into the county’s top school has become too narrow.

“They wouldn’t have the opportunity to be here” without special transfers, said Reginald McNeill, Roosevelt’s principal, as he looked at a couple of students sitting at a conference table in the school office. “The experience that these kids are given can’t be beat.”

Prince George’s district leaders say they are trying to create challenging programs at other high schools so students countywide have more choices.

Nwaneri’s desire to attend Roosevelt, outside of her Hyattsville neighborhood, is not unusual in Prince George’s.

About 2,000 students apply to the highly regarded science and technology program at the school, but only 250 students are admitted. Nearly 300 apply for Quest, which allows the high school students to take a curriculum similar to that offered in the science and technology program. The school accepts only 30 in that program.

Applying to out-of-boundary schools is common across the Washington region each year, as parents vie to get their children into the top schools in their systems. But in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, parents have more high-performing schools to choose from than do parents in Prince George’s.

McNeill said he has received calls from anxious parents at his home about the entrance process for Roosevelt, a school of 2,551 students.

“I constantly get calls from parents [who live throughout the county] asking, ‘Is there any way I can get my child in?’ ” McNeill said. “My wife got a call the other day from a young man who went through the program, and he wants to know how his younger sister can come to Roosevelt. They live in New Carrollton or Lanham. I had to let them know she can’t. . . . It’s difficult to hear parents pleading, and there’s nothing I can do to assist them.”

Quest, which began as the Black Male Achievement program, was created with the same goal as the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County to increase diversity among future leaders in science and engineering, school officials said. Robert and Jane Meyerhoff began that program in 1988, providing scholarship money, mentoring and research assistance to black males who were interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in math, science and engineering.

Since Quest stopped taking students from outside the Roosevelt boundary four years ago, the percentage of African American students in the program has declined by 30 percent, dropping from 80 percent African American to 50 percent.

Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he has tried to enhance the choices for parents and students by creating speciality schools and programs that are as challenging as Roosevelt’s at other high schools.

“What they are doing at Roosevelt is they expose all students to rigor,” Hite said. “The environment inside the science and tech program has permeated the rest of that school. The level of engagement and the types of activities are done across the school. We are beginning to see more and more schools follow the same process.”

Hite said he sees the science and technology program at Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale beginning to make the same types of strides as Roosevelt.

Helena Nobles-Jones, the principal at Flowers, said her high school has a program that is just as challenging as Roosevelt’s. She said parents tend to steer their children toward Roosevelt because the school has a longer tradition.

Hite said he cannot replicate Roosevelt across the county. But he is offering other “non-traditional options that expose students to college-level work,” including the International Baccalaureate program and the Academy of Health Sciences at Prince George’s Community College, where high school students attend classes at the school and earn college credits.

“We’re trying to create viable options for parents and students,” Hite said. “It’s not just replicating an Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s creating environments where students are expected to perform at high levels and providing resources [for them] to be successful.”

Nwaneri, who will major in public health and biology at UMBC in the fall, said she is certain her future would have been different had she not attended Roosevelt. “I just don’t think I would have been as encouraged,” she said. “I think my academics would have definitely been affected.”

 
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