By Eric Lipton and Lisa Frazier
It is a classic picture of upwardly mobile suburbia.
But listen to conversations on these sidewalks or at the Lake Arbor Country Club, and it quickly becomes evident there is something missing from this American ideal: The local schools, many parents fear, are failing their children.
The residents of Lake Arbor are predominantly African American and at a comfortable station in life, with spacious homes, a neighborhood golf course and tennis courts. But in the schools, many see a core institution that's broken, and it is causing them to ask questions they believed they had left behind.
Should they start tightening their budgets and enroll their children in private schools? Should they figure out a way to transfer their children to one of the county's more successful public schools? Or should they recommit themselves to their community and force the county, with their help, to strengthen the neighborhood schools?
Many families end up satisfied with their personal solutions. Yet civic leaders say the movement away from public schools by some parents is an all-too-clear warning that the social progress visible in Prince George's is threatened.
"We have high hopes for our children. We want them to be even more successful than we have been," said Samuel H. Dean, 65, president of the Lake Arbor Civic Association in central Prince George's. "But the school system, and the community at large, is failing our children. It is absolutely unacceptable. The community must demand better and expect more."
Elected officials and school administrators have heard the same warnings. But as the criticism grows, some are now redirecting the questions, wondering whether the black middle class has done enough to force county leaders to provide a top-notch school system.
"I blame our people black middle-class people. We are not doing it, not showing the amount of involvement," said Linda L. Waples, an African American and principal of Glassmanor Elementary in Oxon Hill. "Too much of the time, we as a people are reactive angry at maybe how a teacher treats our child but not proactive when it comes to things like joining the school PTA. And it is an approach that has gotten us into trouble."
The quarter-million-dollar homes in Lake Arbor and neighboring Kettering and Mitchellville stand as sturdy symbols of success.
The approximately 17,500 people who live in the Lake Arbor area make up the most affluent majority-black Zip code in the metropolitan area, according to Claritas 1997, a demographic survey that estimated the neighborhood's median household income at $85,573.
Black families have been buying homes in the area in large numbers since the late 1960s, when many left the District.
More recently, new homes in Lake Arbor have been bought by young, well-educated black professionals drawn from across the country by the area's strong economy.
"Isn't this what America is all about? Something we worked so hard to achieve," said Elaine Burthey, 38, a mother of two children, who has lived in Lake Arbor for eight years with her husband, Richard, 35, a computer consultant.
On first look, the neighborhood elementary school, Kingsford Elementary, seems to deliver on these aspirations. The sprawling, $8.6 million building opened four years ago featuring a communications magnet program with a media center that has a fully equipped television studio. The principal, Linda Jackson Jones, is well respected among colleagues and parents.
By most measures, Kingsford is an average school. There is no looming threat that it will be taken over by the state a fate nine other county schools face nor has Superintendent Jerome Clark put it on his personal list of failing schools.
The performance by Kingsford students on state tests is middle-of-the-road, ranking 62nd among the county's 121 elementary schools and far behind the statewide average.
The school's ranking is based on 25.6 percent of the students last year scoring satisfactory or above on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. The state average was 41.8 percent. Kingsford's results are further still from the statewide goal for 2000 of 70 percent scoring satisfactory or better.
Jones, the principal, said that after three years of instability, caused primarily by crowding, the school has begun to show signs of recovery. Academic performance is improving, based on the results of a local and national test given to sample groups of students to gauge progress, Jones said.
"I feel like we are on our way," Jones said. "This is a wonderful school, and it will only get better. ... The indicators are that we're doing what it takes to be successful."
Still, that bottom line at Kingsford not bad, but, for many parents, not good enough is all the more vexing to families trying to determine how best to educate their children. Door by door in Lake Arbor, they are coming to decisions.
Since they arrived in the United States from their native Nigeria 17 years ago, Obinna Ezeofor and his wife have worked long, hard hours of work to be able to move into the American mainstream.
Obinna Ezeofor, 38, gradually built up his own business, exporting used cars and cosmetics to his homeland. His wife studied nursing and works at Prince George's Hospital Center.
The two-story house they share with their four children is a testament to how far they've traveled. It's not the biggest on the block, but it has a front yard large enough for the children to play in, a garage filled with bikes, toys and two cars, and a spacious living room with a big-screen TV.
Obinna Ezeofor figured that quality local schools came as part of this package. So in the fall of 1994, when he and his wife visited Kingsford and saw the school their tax money was buying for them, they were excited.
The school was new, and it advertised in its spanking fresh classrooms the promise Ezeofor had for his children: of learning, of community, of great starts. And all right in the neighborhood.
"This is it," Ezeofor remembers thinking at the time.
The two eldest Ezeofor children were at Kingsford for its opening day: Melissa in first grade and Michelle in sixth grade. The plentiful computers and well-equipped science lab impressed Michelle, and she liked being surrounded by so many neighborhood children.
"It was easy to make friends," said Michelle, now 15. "It seemed like a place I would be comfortable."
But those good experiences rapidly paled as the family saw Kingsford's promise literally crowded out. Although new, the school opened with 905 students in a building designed for 764.
On the school bus, the Ezeofor children told their parents, other students used bad language, argued and sometimes fought.
Obinna Ezeofor's worries deepened when he saw that the child of a family friend was doing much more advanced work at her private school than Michelle was getting at Kingsford, though the children were the same age.
"Michelle was getting almost straight A's, yet here was this girl who attended private school and was much farther along with her spelling and math," Ezeofor said.
The turning point for the family came in April 1995, when a student approached Michelle at school saying he had a BB gun. Michelle said she did not believe him, and the student proved his boast by opening his book bag. He then warned Michelle and her friends not to tell the principal.
Ezeofor had had enough. He pulled his children out of public school.
Michelle now attends Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg. Melissa, 10, is enrolled at St. Ambrose School in Cheverly, along with her younger siblings, Obinna, 9, and Princess, 6.
Tuition for the four comes to $16,000 a year.
The Ezeofors said they did not make the switch without pause, knowing that the costs would mean sacrifices for the family, including making do with their 1987 Toyota. "I would rather not have to do it," Obinna Ezeofor said. "But I will do anything for my kids, to make sure they grow up and can do better than myself."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company