Most Prince William County parents are pleased with the quality of teachers and curriculum in the public schools, according to a recent survey, but they are concerned about overcrowding and inadequate attention to counseling and suicide prevention.
Overall, 70 percent of the parents gave the school system a grade of B or higher during a Feb. 10 to March 15 telephone survey of 500 county residents. School officials hailed the findings as evidence that they are meeting the needs of the public.
When nonparents were included in the results, 53 percent of all respondents to the survey gave the school system -- the third largest in Virginia -- a grade of A or B. Nationwide, only 43 percent rate their schools that highly, according to Gallup polls.
"The residents of Prince William see their schools in a much better light than the nation as a whole," said Gabriella Belli, a consultant from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University hired by the county to oversee the survey.
Teachers came off best in the survey, which since 1982 has been conducted every two years by the Division Planning Council, an advisory board to School Superintendent Richard W. Johnson. Seventy percent of all respondents gave county teachers "excellent" or "good" ratings, and nearly 60 percent said teacher salaries are too low.
Prince William residents also mentioned the curriculum and special programs and services when asked to name aspects of the schools they liked.
However, the survey also turned up some perceived shortcomings. Nearly 80 percent of parents said that suicide prevention, not now on the curriculum in Prince William, should be taught. Similarly, 44 percent of county residents think that guidance and counseling do not receive enough emphasis in the schools.
"People are saying that suicide prevention should be taught, and it should be taught at all levels," said Belli.
However, Johnson advised caution before Prince William adopts a suicide prevention program. "There's a fine line between education and an emphasis that may not be needed," he said. "Education is a wonderful thing . . . . But you've got to use caution."
Johnson's unwillingness to embrace suicide prevention was criticized by the Prince William Education Association, which advocates the subject.
"I frankly see his comment as being an ostrich-like approach," said Cameron Yow, director of the teacher's group. "There's a problem that needs to be addressed, and it would be cruel and insensitive if the school system buried its head in the sand and didn't develop a program."
Three Prince William teen-agers committed suicide in the school year ending this month; two were enrolled in county schools. The survey findings were collected prior to the highly publicized death last April of Kristi Kauffman, a popular student at Osbourn Park High School.
Overcrowding, a perennial problem in the rapidly growing school system, was seen as a shortcoming of Prince William's schools, followed by drug use and inadequate discipline.