Tonia Joyner's falling out with the Prince George's County school system began, as such stories usually do, with her child, a fourth grader at Benjamin Foulois Elementary School in Suitland. The girl used to love school, but last fall she began to cry every morning and beg her mother not to make her go.
"She told me that her life was miserable, and that 'they' could never do anything right," said Joyner, a 35-year-old Air Force Reserve staff sergeant who is studying for a bachelor's degree in sports medicine. "They," it turned out, were other students in her class, whose frequent misbehavior led the teacher to deny the entire class recess and other free time. "Her teacher was always yelling in the class, and no one would listen," Joyner said.
_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joyner was already concerned about the school. For several weeks, she had not seen any science or social studies work sent home and had heard that the fourth grade had no science textbooks. In fact, she had seen very little homework at all, and no graded work that might give her a clue to how her daughter was doing.
She asked for a meeting at the school and discovered the situation was even worse than she thought. She was first told her daughter would be moved to another class, but when that did not happen she was told that her daughter's designated new teacher had decided to quit. In fact, she learned, all four of the fourth-grade teachers at Foulois were leaving, despite it being the middle of the school year when good replacements would be nearly impossible to find.
Readers familiar with the Washington area will hear her story and quickly conclude: "Well, that's just Prince George's County." The area's lowest-performing and highest-poverty suburban school district has long been written off by many people as a bad place to put your child in a public school.
I have resisted that automatic response, and found many instances of good administrators and good teachers turning out fine students in Prince George's. In my recent reader survey for The Washington Post magazine on what were the area's best high schools, the largest number of positive public school responses were not about Thomas Jefferson, the super magnet in Fairfax County with an average SAT score of 1482, or Montgomery Blair, the Montgomery County school that led the nation this year in Intel Science Talent Search finalists. Instead, the most votes went to Eleanor Roosevelt, a Prince George's school. It has a high-performing science and technology magnet program, to be sure, but what fans of ER were more likely to point out was that non-magnet students got as much encouragement as the science and tech whizzes, that klutzes were welcome on athletic teams and that the staff treated parents like partners rather than dangerous intruders.
There are several examples of what are considered ordinary Prince George's high schools making great gains in Advanced Placement test participation because of good principals and teachers. When I spent a year following a student at Crossland High School, where average test scores are low, I saw several teachers whose classroom skills were just as good as any I had ever seen. I have met many smart Prince George's parents who are happy with their neighborhood schools, and for good reason.
So in telling Tonia Joyner's story, I am not out to get Prince George's County. Anyone who has paid attention knows the school district is handicapped by property tax limits, large numbers of low-income students, political splits in its school board, changes of superintendent, and the other pathologies suffered by many school systems that have trouble recruiting the best educators because they cannot pay them enough to put up with the difficulties of helping a lot of poor kids.
But we spend so much time reporting on the politics and finances of education in such places that we rarely get the parents' point of view. Prince George's has a significant number of ambitious and conscientious parents such as Joyner who are trying to make the schools better, and I think telling her story will indicate where more resources are most needed.
Joyner lives with her husband, an active duty Air Force technical sergeant, and their two children at Andrews Air Force Base, and Foulois is one of several schools that draw students from the base. When she put her daughter and her son in Foulois three years ago, she thought she had found the right school. She liked the school uniforms. The hallways seemed orderly. The teachers she encountered were good.
She is one of those attentive parents who visit their kids' schools often. As time went on, she began to see things she did not like. More children were violating the uniform code. Classes often seemed out of order, with teachers yelling so loudly they could be heard as Joyner walked down the hallways. When she discovered the entire fourth grade has disintegrating and the interim principal seemed powerless, she tried to sound the alarm.
She e-mailed Beatrice Tignor, chair of the Board of Education, on December 4: "Ms. Tignor, this situation is affecting all of the children, not just my child. There is little consistency within the classrooms, and every day that goes by is another day lost. I have considered removing my children from this school; however, this is not an easy task, and I do not believe doing this will call attention to what I feel, as a parent, is a sad situation."
Tignor forwarded the message to Joan Brown, region I director. Joyner said Brown left a phone message "simply advising me that I could expect my child to receive a winter packet that was to be completed over winter break, and that I should assist my child in making sure it was completed."
At a January meeting for fourth-grade parents, Joyner said, the Foulois administrators said they were having difficulty finding suitable replacements for the departing fourth grade teachers. Some of the substitutes that they hired did not have education degrees, and some could not promise they would stay until the end of the school year. There was difficulty finding a bus driver for the afterschool program.
Misbehaving children could not be dealt with because of district rules, Joyner said the parents were told. Administrators said they wanted to remove one child from class after a series of incidents -- throwing wadded paper, talking when the teacher was conducting a lesson, and creating many other distractions. But, they said, the rules forbid them from doing so until finally the child assaulted a teacher. Many teachers lacked the training to control their classrooms, she said. One substitute threatened to quit because his students were so unruly.
Joyner checked the school's academic achievement on the state Web site. On the 2004 state reading test for fifth graders, only 37.4 percent of Foulois students scored at the advanced or proficient level. The Web site reported the results on that same test for other Prince George's schools that had a similar portion of low-income students, from 52.9 to 62.9 percent. The five other schools shown on a chart had 48.8 to 65 percent of their fifth graders scoring advanced or proficient.
When parents asked at the January meeting about getting more resources, such as pay for better teachers, one school staffer said "until there was improvement in test scores, the school could not expect to see additional funds," Joyner said.
Lynetta McMillon, Foulois PTA president, said the school moved quickly to find substitutes for the teachers who were leaving, but many parents were unhappy with the sudden changes. She said the stress of the new insistence on raising tests scores and the lure of better-paid jobs in other districts are taking their toll. "The district is losing teachers all over the county and the school board has to do something about it," she said.
I sent Joyner's story to county school headquarters, and communications officer John White quickly responded. He said the occasional violation of the uniform code was because "when it is cold outside, students sometimes wear jeans under their uniforms." He noted that the fourth-grade teacher that had caused the problem with Joyner's daughter was "no longer at the school." As for the missing science textbooks, he said "fourth grade science classes use 'Science Task Booklets,' not textbooks. Students have these materials. Teachers have supplies and are able to copy materials." He said a bus driver for the afterschool program has been found.
The state Web site's school comparisons were unfair, he said, because 27 percent of Foulois students were in special education for various disabilities, while none of the comparable schools were more than 10 percent special education students, and two of them had gifted-and-talented programs.
As for the fourth-grade meltdown, White said it was "an extremely rare and unfortunate occurrence" for all fourth grade teachers to leave a school at one time. The district's chief human resources officer could not remember anything like it in 30 years, White said.
All four departures were for different reasons. Two teachers were not certified, one was promoted to another county job and the fourth, Joyner's daughter's teacher, left for "personal reasons," White said. "Three Mentor Teachers were assigned full-time for six weeks to work with the substitute teachers. In addition, two members of our Regional staff (one for math, one for reading) developed lesson plans for the substitute teachers and worked with the students. Two of the four substitutes have been replaced with certified teachers. The remaining two long-term substitutes have college degrees."
"The school and the school system are monitoring the progress of those students and will continue to monitor their progress as they continue into the fifth grade, providing additional support if needed," White said.
Joyner said she has been keeping track also, and is not reassured. Whatever science materials are there, she said, they don't appear to be getting much use. Teachers appear to be focusing on reading and math in hopes of raising the test scores.
"Students are not being taught science," Joyner said. "As a matter of fact, just this last marking period, my daughter received a 'B' in science. I brought this to the attention of her new teacher on April 6, who explained that they have just received some science material, but have not taught it due to the fact that they spent the first part of the year preparing for the MSA [Maryland School Assessment test]. My daughter received a 'B' because he'd repeated the grade he'd seen on the previous marking period."
Joyner said she does not blame the school's teachers and administrators. They are trying their best in a very difficult situation.
"The hard fact is that this school needs attention from the county, and from the state," she said. "One look at the school's statistics will show you that the students here are falling through the cracks. . . . This county must have someone who will do what is in the best interests of the students, who will consider all of their needs working for them. There is little incentive to attract teachers. It is even more difficult retaining them and our children are suffering for it."