By Lisa Frazier
She gazes up at her soon-to-be principal as he pores over her records.
"She's a wonderful young lady," Principal Willie Banks announces to the mother of the second-grader. "She loves school, has good attendance, and she's reading on grade level."
On this April morning, less than two months before the end of school, Banks is welcoming his second new student of the day. The principal has mixed emotions: He often is delighted by the individual children who come to him, but the crush of newcomers who pass through his doors is one of his troubled school's many daunting challenges.
During the school year that ended last week, Overlook enrolled 310 new students nearly half the total enrollment of 652 and an additional 236 who began the year there left for other schools.
"They come in all the time, all year," an ever-changing set of faces, Banks says. "It's very difficult as far as the continuity of instruction."
Overlook Elementary, in Temple Hills, is one of nine county schools targeted for state takeover if student performance does not improve dramatically and quickly. All but one of the schools look like Overlook, with more than half the students qualifying for reduced-price or free lunches, and with many of those students burdened by parents who are not actively involved in their education.
At Overlook, the social problems associated with poverty often beyond any school system's control are sometimes overwhelming. But these difficulties have been heightened by administrative failures and resource shortages.
As a result, these children who arrive so needy often go without the basics for academic success: experienced, well-trained teachers and adequate supplies.
Overlook's struggles reflect a key factor in the broader challenges facing the school system: The gap between the county's rich and poor is widening. The median income in the county is going up while the number of impoverished residents is increasing. And although schools like Overlook remain extreme cases, the state's list of failing schools draws attention to the growing presence of poor children. There are roughly 10,000 more poor children in Prince George's classrooms now than four years ago only Baltimore City has more and they account for a larger percentage of the student population.
As in any system, Prince George's County's reputation and success depend not only on its top performers but on how well it supports its weakest planks.
A Chaotic World
"I had a goal at the beginning of the year," Willie Banks begins, sitting behind the desk in his cozy, private office. He has been in the Prince George's system since 1969, a band teacher who worked his way up. He has been principal of Overlook for the past nine years.
"I want this school to be a Blue Ribbon School before I leave it," he continues. "Meaning a climate that invites teaching and learning, a climate that's caring, productive and overall supportive of every child. When you walk in this school, your first expression is, 'Wow!' "
His aspirations are high, reflected in the portraits in his office. Human rights activist Jesse Jackson. South African President Nelson Mandela. Civil rights martyr Martin Luther King Jr. And teacher Christa McAuliffe, who perished in the Challenger space shuttle explosion.
But the world Banks wants to change presses chaotically. Within minutes:
A mother arrives to complain that her 10-year-old daughter has been harassed by classmates.
Another mother shows up to inform Banks that her son is ready to return after a week's suspension for disrupting class.
A fourth-grader rushes in and whines that a classmate punched him in the eye.
Three unruly boys are summarily dumped into the office by an angry teacher, who yells: "They were jumping up and down in the halls, bullying kindergartners. ... I've had it!"
Although most schools have some discipline problems, the relentless stream into Banks's office threatens to drown him. Overlook's suspensions have been steadily rising, county reports show, from 17 in the 1994-95 school year to 53 in 1996-1997, as have the number of students involved. The principal says he would spend more time observing teachers in classrooms and working to improve learning if he were not so weighed down with disciplinary matters.
"You see the same ones over and over," Banks says.
A few parents and teachers blame Banks for the lack of order, saying he can be too quick to give students a break.
"I don't care what environment you come from, the children ought to know that we expect certain things," says Emma Holder, whose daughter just finished fifth grade at Overlook.
Banks argues he does the best he can in difficult circumstances. "We have some children in this building with some severe problems," he says.
For Holder, who worked briefly as a helper at the school, the unruliness is wearying. She says she and her husband, an electrician, hope to transfer their son, who will be in third grade. They also want to move out of Prince George's or closer to its better schools.
"Why is it that we can't have what we need where we can afford to live?" she laments.
Banks has heard that demoralized tone many times. Parents can have the kind of school they want, right at Overlook, he says. But he worries that he does not have all the tools he needs. Among other things, for a school like Overlook to overcome its outside challenges, it needs a solid base of strong teachers.
Yet that base seems to get weaker every year.
After giving the children of Overlook 17 years, her entire career with the county schools, teacher Ethel L. Gilmore is leaving.
She has loved Overlook, she says. She has jumped out of bed at 3 a.m. many mornings to do schoolwork. But she cannot come back.
When asked why, she hesitates. The commute, she says, is part of it. "I'm tired of traveling the Beltway," says Gilmore, who lives in Mitchellville. "I want to get closer to home."
But there is more to it.
By way of explanation, Gilmore produces an essay she wrote for the newsletter at Mount Ephraim Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro. In it, she says teachers have been blamed unfairly for the failures of the schools.
"Teachers cannot teach incorrigible, disrespectful children," the article says. "If learning is to take place, the atmosphere must be conducive to learning. Respect must be taught at home."
The article also says that schools have been asked to take on responsibilities that are not necessarily theirs. "Parents of my generation were of meager means, yet they saw to it that we were fed, groomed and prepared for school," she says.
Gilmore looks around the room at her fourth-grade students.
"You have children who come who are hungry," she says. "They lash out at other children. ... One of my students goes to 7-Eleven every morning for breakfast."
Amid books and papers waiting to be boxed, Gilmore sympathizes with the many teachers who have come and gone, most of them young and inexperienced.
They're unequipped, she says. "It takes you about five years to learn how to teach, to find your way. You can throw those methods courses they teach in college out the window."
Gilmore thinks back to the moment when she heard that the state had added Overlook to its list of failing schools.
"I cried. I really did. I cried, because I know we have some good teachers here."
She pauses. "And we've lost some good teachers."
From 1995 to 1997, 15 of Overlook's 45 teachers resigned, a higher number than at any other elementary school in the county. Just last school year, 11 teachers packed up, some in midyear.
According to school system statistics, one of the teachers retired, one moved, one cited illness and one claimed dissatisfaction with another teacher as reasons for leaving. The seven others left for unknown reasons.
Nine were first- or second-year teachers.
When state testing rolled around in May 1997 for third- and fifth-graders core groups for determining the scores that set a school's standing every third-grade teacher at Overlook was new to the school.
Turnover hits the entire Prince George's system, which loses 12 percent of its new hires after a year on the job. Seven percent leave after their second year. School officials say finding replacements is difficult because state schools are not producing enough certified teachers. Desperate to fill slots, school officials have hired hundreds of men and women not fully certified to teach.
All of the teachers who work on provisional certificates have at least a college degree, but it often is unrelated to the course work they teach. Some were certified teachers in other states but need additional training to meet Maryland's standards. Some also are professionals with a proficiency, such as in math or science, who left the corporate world. Others wound up teaching when they couldn't find jobs in the fields of their choice.
In every category are some bright minds and good ideas, principals say. But the problems often arise when the teachers are thrown into challenging or unruly classrooms without having learned the art of teaching, how to relay knowledge in ways children can understand.
At Overlook, 15 percent of the staff held provisional teaching licenses in the school year just ended. That is slightly higher than the county average and far above the state average. In Montgomery County, only 1.5 percent of the teachers were not certified last year.
As another academic year wound down last week, Overlook had fared a bit better in new teacher turnover: Two of the 11 new teachers had decided to leave, one to have a baby, another to return to college. Banks credited a mentoring program he began for stemming the losses.
What Banks had not foreseen was that he was about to lose four veteran teachers, including Gilmore, to other schools. Tenured teachers are permitted to transfer to schools of their choice, based on seniority, a practice that administrators have not challenged, even in this time of crisis.
"You can't get the continuity in your staff," Banks says, describing the upheaval. "When people come, they have to be trained. ... The colleges teach them methods, but they don't teach them how to handle some of the problems we face."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company