The parking lot at Greenbelt's Eleanor Roosevelt High School yesterday was the most visible sign yet of the unprecedented teacher recruitment drive in Prince George's County: It was jammed from early morning through much of the day with cars from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, Georgia and beyond.
They were all driven by teachers who had responded to the county's high-profile campaign to hire "the best of the best," in the words of Assistant Superintendent Jerome Clark, to fill an expected 400 vacancies next school year.
"I was shocked when I arrived this morning -- all the cars, all the people," said Ellen Stewart, a 14-year veteran teacher from Ohio who decided to apply after seeing an article in her local paper about the county's recruitment drive. Despite her teaching experience, Stewart said, "I thought, how are they going to notice me? But by the time I got inside, I kind of relaxed."
By the end of the day, more than 800 teachers, some with experience like Stewart's, some fresh out of school, were expected to pass through a battery of interviews and competency tests, according to school spokeswoman Jacquelyn Lendsey.
Those interviewed yesterday, Lendsey said, represented a portion of the 3,500 people who sent in applications since the county began its highly publicized effort to hire high-quality teachers for the upcoming school year and to restore public confidence in the county school system, which is adding programs and getting increased funding to improve its image and enhance desegregation efforts.
Whether the recruiting program has been a success will not be known until July, when, county officials said, they hope to have most of the contracts signed.
Armed with sharply increased starting salaries -- $19,000 next year, up from $15,738 in the school year just completed -- and a package of benefits donated by major corporations ranging from a free month's rent to discounted consumer loans, school officials have worked for months to persuade the best applicants to bypass systems better known for excellence to be a part of the county's future.
"We're trying to sell Prince George's County," said Superintendent John A. Murphy, who stood in the hallway beaming at the turnout while about 125 other administrators interviewed the applicants.
"It's a competitive market," Murphy added. "We're competing with the best systems for the best people . . . . There's an unusually small supply of candidates."
But the shrinking supply was not evident in the diverse group that gathered in Greenbelt yesterday.
Nathaniel Gibson, a 33-year-old special education teacher from Columbus, Ga., figured that he could increase his annual salary by as much as $5,000 by taking a position in Prince George's County.
"It just seems like the opportunities here are so much greater," he said.
Elaine Shaw, a Louisiana native, wanted to remain close to the District, where she moved after her wedding last year.
Although she stopped working after getting married, the county's promotional campaign caught her eye.
"I do miss teaching, and it's the location I want, the salary I want and the benefits . . . . "
Although some of the applicants said their salaries would be increased by moving to Prince George's County, several experienced candidates said they would have to analyze whether the raise would compensate for the move to the area with its relatively high cost of living.
Faced with some of those doubts, county officials offered a few especially attractive candidates contracts on the spot.
One was William Fitzhugh, who was, as personnel officer David Duvall put it -- "the kind of person we're looking for."
"He's in elementary education, he has experience, excellent references . . . a master's degree -- and he's a male. We need the male image in those grade levels," said Duvall.
Fitzhugh, from Syracuse, N.Y., looking slightly dazed after a round of interviews, said he probably would take the job, although not for the reasons that school officials might think.
"My wife and I want to move to the area," he said.
"Not to knock New York, but we've had it with snow."