Pr. George’s school leaders need to keep faith with parents

September 20, 2013

Here’s some unsolicited advice for the Prince George’s public schools chief executive, Kevin Maxwell: Let those who work for you in central administration know that misleading parents is bad policy.

These days, parents with children at Judith Hoyer Montessori think that deception is school policy. (For transparency: I have a child at the school.) Why?

In late 2011 and early 2012, the school district held public meetings to discuss new school boundaries. The plan included moving Judith Hoyer to the former Oakcrest Elementary building about four miles away. Such a move to a larger facility, officials told Judith Hoyer parents, would allow the school to expand to include grades seven and eight. That would leave families in central Prince George’s with a full kindergarten-through-eighth grade Montessori program and put them on equal footing with public school Montessori programs that serve families in northern and southern Prince George’s.

Judith Hoyer parents embraced the move officially through its Parent-Teacher Association. But the expansion that parents expected has not come to pass. Not even close.

In fact, the county schools’ chief academic officer was quoted in a news report the week that schools opened last month as saying that Oakcrest, the building that Judith Hoyer moved into at the start of the 2012-13 school year, does not have facilities that seventh- and eighth-grade classes require. Those missing facilities include a gymnasium and lockers.

Say what?

The same school building that the school district administration said would enable Judith Hoyer to expand to include middle school classes lacks the facilities needed for those grade levels?

“We are so angry,” said one parent active in the school’s PTA.

There was so much anger that the parents decided they needed a separate committee to focus on expansion prospects while keeping parents’ outrage in check. That committee sent Maxwell a letter outlining the parents’ frustration. “In 2012,” the committee wrote, “parents agreed to support moving our program to a larger school (Oakcrest) from our original home in Cheverly with the clear understanding that the expressed purpose of this move was to support Judith P. Hoyer Montessori expansion to include a middle school program in the 2013-2014 school year.”

Even if parents had fought the move from Cheverly to Capitol Heights, it probably would have happened anyway, as part of the redrawn-boundaries package approved by the Board of Education. But getting parents’ support surely removed one hurdle in the always controversial process of redrawing boundaries.

The parents at Judith Hoyer are the type Maxwell and County Executive Rushern Baker have declared a priority in their efforts to remake county schools. They are middle-income parents who are heavily engaged in their children’s education. Maxwell and Baker say they want to keep those families from leaving public schools and, in some cases, to bring them back. Already, some parents in upper grades have taken their children out of the school.

The school system says Judith Hoyer has expanded. The school district added three staff positions at the school and invested about $50,000 in classroom improvements. The school has added about 70 students since its move to the Oakcrest facility. But those additions are in the lower grade levels.

In a statement, the school system communications director, Max Pugh, says Oakcrest lacks “some of the preferred facility attributes — such as a gym — from the Maryland State Department of Education guidelines for middle schools. However, this does not preclude Judith P. Hoyer Montessori from having a middle school component.” With sufficient enrollment, Pugh’s statement says, “a middle school . . . may be established and PGCPS is operating under the assumption this will happen.”

Maxwell, who became schools chief executive this summer, is planning to meet with the parents committee.

From the parents’ perspective, this mess seems like an organized effort to mislead — maybe deceive — a group of residents that county leaders say is crucial to improving the state of Prince George’s public schools. The mind-set in central administration that allowed this to happen has to end. The erosion of trust that such actions generate stymies Maxwell’s and Baker’s efforts to remake county schools.

Keith Harriston lives in Prince George’s County and has two children in county public schools. He teaches journalism at Howard University, where he edits hunewsservice.com.

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