Prince George's County officials dubbed it "We Are Education . . . We Are America," a back-to-school extravaganza infused with the tone and trappings of a high school pep rally. The program was designed to inspire a struggling school system for the school year beginning next Wednesday. And after two hours of speeches, videotapes and a little girl in a pinafore singing "Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya tomorrow," some in the audience were dabbing at their eyes.
About 11,000 employes packed the Capital Centre -- attendance was mandatory -- to hear a message aimed at boosting morale in a system plagued by enduring legal struggles, financial woes and low test scores.
The first-ever event brought together teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers and administrators, delivered in 400 buses to the Largo sports arena. The upbeat theme was orchestrated and pervasive, from the songs and dances to the keynote address by Superintendent John A. Murphy.
"Our system has suffered from a negative public image," Murphy said. "A major goal of this organization must be to change that mindset . . . . This school system can hold its head high."
Board of Education Chairman Angelo Castelli said his colleagues on the board had been skeptical when the rally was suggested by Murphy, who has been in his job a year. "We thought it might be a bit hokey," he said. "But the more we thought about it, the more we liked it."
Murphy bristled at suggestions from some teachersthat the rally, which cost $14,000, was a public relations event that glossed over the problems of the school system.
"It's not a pep rally at all," he said, but "a very solid meeting for talking about our problems and outlining a course of action to correct those problems."
In his remarks to the crowd, he cited those problems, lagging achievement among black students, for example. But he went further, repeating a loftier goal.
"I'm enough of a dreamer to believe our school system can be a national model for educational excellence," he said.
"In Prince George's County, we have the chance to be right out front . . . to prove to critics that public education works and it works well," he said.
In past years, employes watched a back-to-school address from the superintendent in their schools, via closed-circuit television.
"Usually, we're in the classroom, this is much more interesting," said Steve Bennof, a teacher at Woodridge Elementary School.
"If this gets people motivated, that's what we need to start a program off right," said Sandy Hall, a secretary at Frederick Douglass High School.
There was some cynicism among teachers about the event, said teachers union President Paul Pinsky. "I understand the need for boosting morale, but whether it was worth the whole day, we'll just have to wait and see," he said. "I think it really gets down to people hoping the commitment will last through contract negotiations," which begin this fall.
The speakers included Christa McAuliffe, who was chosen this summer from among 110 national finalists to accompany a crew aboard the space shuttle Challenger next year. McAuliffe taught for eight years in Prince George's before moving to New Hampshire, where she now lives and teaches..
"Teachers matter. They care. We infuse youngs minds with a thirst for knowledge," she told the crowd. Then she urged public officials to "help make [teacher] salaries competitive with other professions," and the house came down.