It is a year of transition for the Prince George's County education system.
A dozen of the system's 175 schools opened yesterday with new "magnet" programs designed to end a 13-year-old desegregation lawsuit. In addition, "compensatory" education programs have served to boost funding at 10 predominantly black schools this year.
The system's administrative staff has been reorganized to shift power back to school principals, and students face new, stricter graduation and attendance requirements.
"It's a year where we're going to recognize and refocus our energies," said Superintendent John A. Murphy. "I think we're ready to move into a very exciting time for the future of public education."
School officials are generally positive about changes they hope will resolve the county's desegregation dispute and otherwise improve the school system, which is enrolling about 103,900 students this fall, a decline of 1,500 students from last year.
"I perceive it to be probably the best opening of a school system since I've been on the board," said Board of Education Chairman Angelo Castelli, who was elected seven years ago.
Despite the upbeat tone, the system has lingering problems, particularly a lack of funds to support the ambitious magnet school and compensatory education programs. Murphy needs about $9 million for the programs this year, $4 million of which he hopes to receive in the form of a federal grant.
But he is still unsure where he will get the remainder of the money and continues to negotiate with state and county officials.
There is also the issue of teacher morale. A survey released this summer by the county teachers union reported that 47 percent of the 4,350 educators who responded said they wanted to change professions because of low pay, high stress, crowded classrooms and discipline problems.
In a move to bolster morale, Murphy organized a back-to-school rally last week for all 11,000 employes in the system, including teachers, bus drivers, school secretaries and custodians.
Paul Pinsky, president of the Prince George's County Educators Association, said the mood among teachers is mixed.
Murphy "has a lot of initiatives and new projects: That's positive," he said.
"I think people are going to want to know if they're going to get help from the superintendent when it comes to be negotiating time."
Teacher contract negotiations, which in recent years have been slow-moving and tense, will get under way again this fall. The two-year teacher contract expires next August.
There is support among teachers, Pinsky said, for the compensatory education programs, which are aimed at improving facilities and programs at 10 inside-the-beltway schools officials say cannot be desegregated because of their locations.
Teachers also like Murphy's commitment to raise test scores in the county to the top 25th percentile nationally, Pinsky said.
"In terms of raising standards, teachers have always been in favor of that," he said.
In addition to his goal of raising test scores countywide, Murphy has announced plans to reduce the disparity between achievement among black students and their classmates.
For the first time, the county recently released test score data that revealed black students scored as much as 20 points below their classmates on standardized tests; the black students also received poorer grades and participated less frequently in extracurricular activities.
"For too long our public schools have not been serving the total population," Murphy said. "I feel confident we're going to be able to restructure our focus and deal with the youngsters who haven't been served."
While the test scores were released by racial group, Murphy said the disparity in achievement is primarily reflective of income.
"These are poor kids versus middle-class and upper middle-class kids. There are more black poor kids than white poor kids, so it shows as a black-white distinction on our test scores," he said.
The changes this year include:
*Ten elementary schools receiving compensatory funding. These schools -- Barnaby Manor, Berkshire, Bradbury Heights, District Heights, Forest Heights, Glassmanor, Green Valley, Hillcrest Heights, John Bayne and Overlook -- will maintain lower class size than the rest of the county, receive funding for computer programs and additional staff for library, counseling, math and reading programs.
*Twelve schools offering magnet programs, designed to improve desegregation by drawing students to schools outside their neighborhoods.
Six of the magnet schools have talented and gifted programs, with a total of about 1,000 students. Those schools are Capitol Heights, Valley View, Glenarden Woods, Kenmoor elementary schools and Kenmoor and Walker Mill middle schools.
The remaining six magnet schools offer before- and after-school day care. They are Apple Grove, Ardmore, Kettering, Longfields, Oakcrest and Phyllis E. Williams.
*Students entering the ninth grade must fulfill more stringent graduation requirements, approved by the Maryland Board of Education this spring. In addition to three years of mathematics, which the county had already approved as a requirement, students must also complete a fine arts and practical arts course.
*Attendance standards have been strengthened. The county school board recently mandated that students receiving five or more unexcused absences in a semester -- or 10 in the school year -- will not pass that class. The previous rule allowed 10 unexcused absences a semester.