Of a County's Schools By Eric Lipton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 1998; Page A1 Despite frequent pledges to improve, the Prince George's County school system is faltering, threatening decades of social progress in one of the nation's most prosperous majority-black suburbs.
Student performance on the state's key test has dropped three years in a row, leaving only Baltimore's school system, which is in the midst of a state-mandated reorganization, worse than Prince George's County's. Nine of the county's 181 schools have been threatened with state takeover, 16 are on a county-imposed "alert status" tied to their poor performance and six more are undergoing restructuring to avoid state action.
Countywide, one in seven teachers holds only a provisional license, either because the teacher hasn't passed the certification exam or completed required courses, a far greater proportion than in any other jurisdiction in Maryland.
Nearly 10,000 students, twice as many as in any other jurisdiction, attended classes in trailers in the school year that just ended.
Assessing the causes of this crisis, school system administrators contend that tight school budgets and growing poverty inside the Beltway have exacerbated problems triggered by enrollment surges. Yet staff members, parents, community leaders and education experts say more than these external factors are at work. Many of them point to poor decision making and bad management within the school system administration itself.
Some of its disappointed constituents argue the system is in the hands of a superintendent adept at conceiving innovative programs but less successful at implementing them. They contend, too, that the school adminis tration worsened the classroom space crunch by consistently underestimating population growth.
The school board, they add, spends a great deal of time squabbling over attention-grabbing topics such as student slang but has failed to quickly confront systemic problems such as the rise in uncertified teachers.
Fractious politics in Prince George's has added to the problems. The county has persistently failed to find the money in Annapolis and with local taxpayers needed to build schools over three year.
The decline in performance continues even as the system becomes larded with so many initiatives its programming looks "like Heinz 57," said Sam Stringfield, a Johns Hopkins University professor who compiled a 1997 report for the U.S. Department of Education on successful school reforms nationwide.
There is "no clear idea of 'How are we going to get there?' " Stringfield said. "Trying to do 50 things at once is the same thing as trying to do nothing."
With a $780 million budget and 125,637 students, the Prince George's system is the 19th largest in the country.
"We're talking about a $1 billion industry, but we don't treat it like that and it's our children," said school board Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland), adding that "it doesn't do anyone any good in Maryland to have another Baltimore City emerging."
Private and public aspirations now seem threatened by a school system that many parents believe is failing them.
"The children who are failing in this county today are the grandchildren of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King and others who fought the cause," said Jacob Andoh, 44, a Lake Arbor biomedical engineer and father of two. "These are the grandchildren of people who suffered so tremendously, so we could have the lives we have now. We don't want to be the killers of the dream."
Expectations were high when the system hired its first African American superintendent in 1995.
Jerome Clark's rise tracked the evolution of the county, from sleepy, southern and mostly white, to bustling, suburban and mostly black. But even as Clark was making history, he was burdened by it.
In 1972, after a majority-white school board was slow to integrate schools, the county became the subject of a desegregation order that still requires 11,400 students to be bused miles from their neighborhoods.
By the mid-1980s, when the African American student population grew to more than 50 percent, Prince George's schools again gained national attention. This time, however, there was praise for its voluntary integration methods such as magnet schools and for improved achievement by white and black students. Local business leaders were so thrilled they financed a national advertising campaign to tout the schools.
But from that high, the system fell into a trough of troubles in the 1990s that has eroded public confidence.
"Prince George's County is a beautiful, flourishing, healthy community and in order to keep the county healthy, to keep it prosperous, you have to ensure quality schools," said County Council member Isaac Gourdine (D), chairman of the education committee.
Gourdine, 51, a lawyer from Fort Washington, has lived in the county for 28 years and has two children who graduated from Prince George's schools before going on to college.
Within a week of his appointment, in an attempt to give principals tighter control of the school in their communities, he had persuaded the school board to decentralize management by replacing five area offices with 20 school clusters that would essentially operate as mini-districts.
Within a month, Clark warned top administrators they would lose their jobs if the substance and quality of schools did not improve. Later, he told principals and teachers that if student scores dropped below set levels, he would reorganize buildings by installing new principals and forcing teachers to reapply for jobs.
"The whole thing is about accountability," Clark said in an interview in August 1995. "There is something that's not happening for our youngsters."
A Teaching Crisis
In the spring of 1996, the school board was consumed by a debate over whether Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas should speak at an eighth-grade awards ceremony. As that noisy rhetorical dispute unfolded, a crisis of greater proportions began to brew quietly inside the system's headquarters.
Projections indicated fall enrollment would jump by about 3,000. But an unprecedented number of teachers ultimately totaling about 1,000 were retiring, resigning or taking other jobs. That meant Clark and his staff would have to hire about 1,500 teachers for the next year, representing nearly 20 percent of the staff.
Finding that many qualified teachers in the midst of a regional shortage would be difficult for just about any system. For Prince George's, it proved impossible.
A county property tax cap voters imposed in 1978 controlled growth in the budget and limited the school system's ability to match salaries offered by other suburbs. Starting pay for a teacher in Prince George's today is $27,144, compared with $29,896 in Montgomery County. Also, a directive in the 1972 desegregation order to diligently seek minority teachers also made recruitment tougher.
The inadequate planning, limited resources and marketplace conditions led to dire consequences.
During the 1996-1997 year, the system had about 900 provisionally licensed teachers 13 percent of the teaching staff. In Montgomery that year, 1.5 percent of the teachers were not certified, while in Baltimore, which had salaries lower than those in Prince George's, 7 percent weren't certified. In the school year that just ended, the numbers worsened, with 15 percent of the staff, about 1,250 teachers, having provisional status. The highest proportion is at Benjamin Stoddert Middle School in Temple Hills, where 26 of 50 professional staff are provisional and that's after Stoddert became one of Clark's reconstituted schools.
Filling classrooms with uncertified teachers disrupts learning, said Lawrence Leak, assistant Maryland superintendent for certification and accreditation. Those teachers often have difficulty managing behavior, do not know the curriculum and lack fine-tuned skills, he said. "Kids deserve better," Leak said.
The dearth of experience leaves Stoddert Principal Sylvester Conyers talking about the added years it will take to improve student performance. "But I can't think about what could have been," Conyers said.
School board Chairman Thornton said the heavy reliance on provisional teachers is not the school system's fault. The County Council and community at large were unwilling to fund competitive salaries, he said. "People have come to take the cries of this board and the education community as perfunctory."
Per-pupil spending in Prince George's in the 1996-97 school year was $6,370, below the state average of $6,584, and well below Montgomery, the state leader, at $8,035.
In retrospect, Clark said, he may have been too willing to accept unprepared applicants. "Perhaps we lost maybe a little bit of the vision of what being in compliance meant," Clark said, referring to his minority hiring.
Clark also said it was not until late spring or summer 1997 after a school year with about 900 uncertified teachers that he learned the county was out of kilter with other districts. And that knowledge came only as a result of an investigation by a General Assembly task force that called it a "crisis."
Today, 230 uncertified county teachers have worked for the county at least three years, some for many more. "I would move it more rapidly" to pressure them to finish training, Clark said. "But that is hindsight."
Clark may have little other choice. State regulations, in the process of being adopted, would prohibit teachers from remaining on a provisional license for more than four years.
Clark has now set a two-year goal to certify all provisional teachers, using a $2.5 million state grant for training. The County Council has given Clark $20.4 million to raise pay, and he has agreed to tighten hiring requirements.
But rebounding will take time.
"It is a bit like putting up a traffic light at an intersection after an awful car accident," said Thomas Kirby, personnel director for the county schools.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company