Suitland High School, which for decades was known as a school plagued by shootings, bitter racial tension and dismal test scores, has been chosen as the site of a major education speech to be delivered by President Reagan next week, the White House announced yesterday.
As recently as two years ago, the reputation of the Prince George's County school was built on publicity surrounding racial brawls at lunch time, and a decade ago the school made headlines as the site of a fatal shooting. Yesterday, a Reagan administration official called Suitland "emblematic" of the president's educational priorities.
"It's a turn-around school," a White House spokesman said. "It's very much in line with President Reagan's philosophy on education . . . a magnet school and a dramatically successful one."
In the speech, scheduled for Wednesday morning, Reagan is to outline his education policy, emphasizing his support for programs that give families more choice among schools.
Suitland last year began offering specialized magnet programs open to students across the county and, as a result, exemplifies increased parental choice, Education Department officials said.
The president's visit was welcome news for the school, which is still struggling to live down its tarnished reputation.
"We are quite honored," Principal Joseph Hairston said. "We are succeeding, and that is what people want to highlight at this time -- the success of our school."
Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who will accompany Reagan, recommended that Prince George's County be the site of the speech and Superintendent John A. Murphy suggested Suitland High, according to Julie Cave, a special assistant to Bennett.
"Our attention was caught by what's going on at the district level, by Superintendent Murphy and his approach to education," Cave said. "In part, it was his answer to desegregation. Instead of throwing a lot of money at transportation, he is spending money in the classroom to improve education."
She said Bennett was also attracted to Murphy's management style; the superintendent has given principals more autonomy but has told them they could lose their jobs if academic progress was not evident in test scores.
She called these methods, which mirror Bennett's favored themes of accountability and parental choice, as "important and effective."
Suitland High is widely perceived as a "turn-around school" because, in recent years, test scores have risen, complaints from the community about disruptive students have declined and new magnet programs have drawn the interest of parents around the county. Hairston was appointed principal in 1986.
The school -- which enrolls 2,200 students, 82 percent of whom are minority group members -- became a magnet school last year when specialized college preparatory and performing arts programs were added.
Magnet programs were instituted in the county several years ago as a means of improving racial integration, by drawing white students into predominantly black neighborhoods, without increasing mandatory busing.
During the 11 a.m. visit, the president is expected to hear a briefing from county and school officials on their educational program, then he is to speak to students.
Reagan has visited several schools around the country during his tenure, a policy that was initiated after polls showed he was perceived by the public as weak on education issues. His current attention to education -- he also plans to make education a major theme in his State of the Union address Jan. 25 -- comes at the same time his administration is beefing up its education budget proposal relative to cutbacks proposed in previous years.