By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
There is a philosophy club at Glenarden Woods Elementary School in Prince George's County. Nine out of 10 students there show proficiency on state exams. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education named it a Blue Ribbon school, the nation's highest distinction.
Now parents are terrified that county officials under a financial squeeze are going to ruin it.
The proposal to move the school's talented-and-gifted program to Robert R. Gray Elementary School in Capitol Heights is only a small part of a sweeping plan to realign school boundaries and close a dozen mostly under-enrolled schools to save $11.9 million in the fiscal year that starts in July. But the case of Glenarden Woods is igniting debate over how much a county with an uneven record of academic achievement values its most successful programs. It also reflects tensions over gifted education that emerge from time to time in many local school systems.
Prince George's school officials note that Robert Gray is about 40 percent under capacity, and they say the change would allow more students to take part in the talented-and-gifted program.
"This is about expansion of quality programs to places that have been historically underrepresented," said William R. Hite Jr., interim superintendent of the 128,000-student system. "It's our whole goal to do just that: to provide more seats for those programs that have proven effective for our students."
But Glenarden Woods parents doubt that students or teachers will move to the new campus, and they began sounding alarms as soon as the plan was introduced Jan. 22. Dozens showed up for a meeting at the Glenarden school Thursday night, ready to fight. They spoke of writing letters, testifying en masse at school board meetings, moving out of the county and bringing a lawsuit.
"Let's be honest. We don't have a lot of successful programs," said Laura Carriere, a Prince George's mother who is president of the Maryland Coalition for Gifted and Talented Education. "But the ones we have are wildly successful. I don't know why anyone would want to risk damaging those programs."
Elveeda Dixon, mother of a Glenarden Woods sixth-grader, said: "It'll dismantle the program, because a lot of highly qualified teachers and parents with gifted students will be forced to leave the Prince George's school system."
Even when Prince George's schools were receiving terrible publicity -- such as when former schools chief Andre J. Hornsby was being investigated for corruption in 2005 -- school board members could point to Glenarden Woods as a school that ranked with anything in wealthier neighboring counties. Home to a talented-and-gifted program since the late 1970s, it has a degree of staff stability rare in the county. More than 90 percent of the school's students showed proficiency on reading and math exams in 2008, and a liberal curriculum allows students to stretch their abilities rather than just learn to beat a test.
Nor is Glenarden Woods an island of privilege. A third of its roughly 500 students receive free or reduced-price meals, a common measure of poverty. With its strong reputation, the school is over-enrolled by about 20 students.
Robert Gray Elementary, a few miles closer to the District, inhabits another world. More than three-quarters of its students receive free or discounted meals, which qualifies it to receive federal Title I grants. Yet the school is successful in its own right: It met state standards, and 74 percent of its students showed proficiency in math and reading.
Like many schools inside the Capital Beltway, Robert Gray is under-enrolled. The administration projects that next year, 440 students will go to the school, which has a capacity of 748. Moving the 270-student talented-and-gifted program there would bump enrollment up and possibly allow more students into the program, school system officials said.
"I think that it's natural to expect that there's some anxiety over any kind of change," said school board member Heather Iliff (District 2), whose daughter is in the Glenarden Woods talented-and-gifted program. "I personally am not worried about her changing schools. It's a newer building that she'll be moving into and less crowded, and the curriculum is going to be the same and the program is going to be the same, and it'll allow more spaces for more students."
But few of the parents gathered in the Glenarden Woods multipurpose room Thursday felt that way. They were skeptical that a program could simply be uprooted and set in new soil without disruption, and they feared that veteran teachers would opt to leave the county instead of staying with the students.
"It's a further 20 minutes out on the bus, minimum," said Betsy Marks Delaney, mother of a student at Glenarden Woods, with another scheduled to enter next fall. "It's a uniform school, which this isn't."
Jacqueline Vassor Surratt said her fifth-grade son was "really upset" by the proposal and told classmates: "They're about to get rid of Glenarden Woods. Don't you care? Don't you care?"
"We're not going to split it up," Surratt said. "We're fighting. If I have to run for the school board, I'm running." The crowd gave her loud applause and cheers.
Parents and a pair of children also voiced concerns about other proposals, such as a merger of Henry G. Ferguson Elementary School in Accokeek with neighboring Eugene Burroughs Middle School, and the closure of Oakcrest Elementary School in Landover.
But the deepest fear surfaced on a list of "common concerns" on a handout: "Complete revamping of the school system to push a hidden agenda."
Many parents say they fear school officials do not support talented-and-gifted education, echoing complaints that have surfaced in recent months in Montgomery County over a proposal to erase the "gifted" label because of flaws in the formula for determining whether a child belongs in one category or another.
"We know that there is perennial resistance to TAG education," said Arnold Kee, president of the Prince George's County Association for Talented and Gifted Education.
Told of the worries, Hite responded: "This is not about some hidden agenda to dismantle talented-and-gifted programs. That would be ridiculous."
"This is about the expansion of quality programming," Hite said, stressing that the proposal could change before the board makes a decision in the next two months. "There's no hidden agenda at all. If this is about expanding programs to other places, then we're guilty. I want to dispel that, because that's far from what it is."
School board member Pat Fletcher (District 3), whose district includes Glenarden Woods, said she wants to study the proposal. In general, she said, she supports boundary adjustments but is open to public input.
"What people need to understand is, this is a proposal," Fletcher said. "This is something that the community needs to have a say-so in."