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'You're Playing With People's Lives'
A proposal to save $11.9 million by closing some schools, realigning the boundaries of others and shifting some programs sparks outrage.

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009

Aproposal to close 12 Prince George's County schools and relocate other programs is meeting fierce resistance from parents, hundreds of whom have come out to public meetings over the past two weeks to say they believe the plan would destroy successful programs.

School officials say the plan to realign school boundaries and close a dozen mostly underenrolled schools would save $11.9 million in the fiscal year that starts in July. It would also solve crowding problems at some schools and increase the number of students at underenrolled facilities. And, the proposal would allow officials to use the emptied schools for programs that have not been available to many neighborhoods.

But parents at Oakcrest Elementary in Landover and Glenarden Woods Elementary in Glenarden, schools that would be affected by the changes, overwhelmingly opposed the plan at community meetings last week.

Both schools host successful talented-and-gifted programs and rank well compared with those at other county elementary schools. Under the plan, Oakcrest would be closed, and its talented-and-gifted students sent to Capitol Heights Elementary School; Glenarden Woods would stay open, but its talented-and-gifted program would move to Robert R. Gray Elementary School in Capitol Heights.

At hearings at Oakcrest and Glenarden Woods, dozens of parents and students critiqued the proposal as school officials took notes and gathered statements written on paper and index cards. Not a single person spoke in favor of the changes.

"Our school has worked hard to maintain our academic excellence," said Danielle Forehand, 11, a sixth-grader at Oakcrest. "It would be a great failure and disservice to our community if the school closes."

In a frequently repeated refrain, Oakcrest parents said they did not understand why their school is on the list of buildings to be emptied. Many of the dozen schools are seriously underenrolled, but Oakcrest isn't: It is slightly short of capacity. Some of the other schools are either failing academically or their buildings are falling apart. Oakcrest has neither problem.

"Why would anyone want to close down a school that is perfectly well?" said Hillary Kassembe, a father of two Oakcrest students. "I'm having a hard time intellectualizing this thing. I'm having a hard time doing the math."

The response appeared to get state lawmakers' attention. As parents began departing at the end of the meeting, state Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George's) told them to sit back down because she had a speech to make.

"We are in Annapolis fighting like you wouldn't believe to bring money back to Prince George's County," she said. "I cannot tell you all in words how disappointed I am that someone would have the audacity to close Oakcrest Elementary. I speak for the senator -- Senator [Nathaniel] Exum -- I speak for the [County] Council, I speak for the House of Delegates -- we are not going to take this sitting down."

She got loud cheers.

Kathleen Kurtz, executive director of the "autonomy zone" that administers Oakcrest, Glenarden Woods and many other schools, took notes throughout the meeting and said they would be taken to school administrators and the Board of Education.

"I think this is a positive beginning for parents to be able to share their feelings," she said. "Everyone's got ownership to their building."

At Glenarden Woods, the scene was equally passionate. School board member Heather Iliff (District 2), whose daughter is a fourth-grader at Glenarden Woods, explained the school system's reasoning behind the proposal and the budgetary constraints officials are under. She promised, however, to listen to the voice of the community.

The voice that night was clear: Parents and students said they are deeply opposed, warning that uprooting the talented-and-gifted program and planting it in a different school could cause parents and teachers to leave the county.

The hour-and-a-half of speeches reached a dramatic pitch when Robert Braddock, a father of four, broke down in tears as he implored the board to reconsider the proposal.

"You are destroying the ties that bind this community," he said. "You're playing with people's lives. You're playing with our kids' lives."

He got a standing ovation.

"It's pretty much what I expected to hear," Iliff said after the meeting. "I think that the whole board is going to take people's views into consideration. It's a complex puzzle to solve, and if we can find other ways to solve it, we will."

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