President Reagan wowed them at Suitland High School yesterday, telling more than 2,200 students and guests that he likes what he sees in their magnet school and wants to help duplicate their success around the country.
Venturing into an inner-Beltway community that has been less than friendly political turf for him in the past, Reagan called magnet programs such as those in Prince George's County "one of the great successes of the educational reform movement."
For his effort, Reagan drew enthusiastic responses from Suitland students and a host of state and local officials gathered at the suburban county school.
Local politicians heralded the 60-minute visit as a "shot in the arm" for Prince George's County, and educators called it "the ultimate endorsement" of improvements the school system has undertaken in the last four years.
"Everybody's a little bit stunned," said Board of Education member Marcy Canavan. "You don't often get to sit 20 feet from the president."
It was hard to find students in the predominantly black school who weren't taken with a man they said they liked because he is warm, chatty and quick with a joke. Their pride in having their school chosen as the site of a presidential speech was evident.
"I'm all excited about the man coming to our school," said Derek Cryer, 16. "The man's the president of the United States," he added incredulously.
Freshman John Crower added, "It's the best thing that ever happened to Suitland."
During his visit to Suitland, the president announced that he will seek an appropriation of $115 million for his Magnet Schools Assistance Program, which last year awarded $72 million in grants for magnet programs, those which offer specialized courses as a means of attracting a racial mix of students.
Suitland High is being touted as a model for magnet schools, featuring programs in performing arts, college-level studies and vocational training.
Reagan has supported such programs as one way of allowing more parental choice in public education. And as he sat on the Suitland stage, a red and white banner swinging above him heralded the Washington area's second largest school district as "A School System of Choices."
In choosing Suitland for his speech, the Republican president found himself surrounded by Democrats in the racially diverse county. Though Prince George's has benefited from federal aid for magnet schools, many other administration cuts in social programs have been deeply felt in Suitland and other working-class neighborhoods inside the Capital Beltway.
Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Rep. Steny Hoyer (Suitland class of '57) spoke briefly to the students before Reagan came on stage for a short panel discussion with Superintendent John A. Murphy, veteran teacher Camille McCann, student Robin Hicks, principal Joseph Hairston and business leader Raymond LaPlaca. Each took three minutes informing Reagan of efforts to make improvements in the school system, and at Suitland in particular.
Afterward, Reagan noted in his speech that not so long ago Suitland had "bad problems" of "low academic performance, vandalism, poor attendance by both students and teachers alike.
"Yet today, you've turned Suitland around," Reagan said.
The additional federal funds Reagan is seeking would allow more schools to compete for the grants, which until now have been available only to those, like Prince George's, whose magnet schools are the product of court-ordered desegregation plans. Last year, the Alexandria school system received a $209,000 grant for its small magnet school program while Prince George's received one of the largest, $4 million.
Marjorie Spirer, president of the Prince George's Education Association, representing teachers, expressed one of the morning's few notes of pessimism. She said she fears that magnets are eclipsing the importance of the regular neighborhood schools that educate the majority of students.
Students, who learned about Reagan's coming on Friday, had decorated the auditorium and gymnasium walls with a banner honoring the country's "Top Gun" and another that read, "The Drama Club Welcomes our Performing President."
Several hundred students watched the entire program in the school gym, on 13 television monitors, while 1,000 students and guests sat before Reagan in the school auditorium. All passed through metal detectors before the president's visit.
Five students, selected ahead of time, asked Reagan about nuclear war, the trade deficit, the role of youth in politics and what career goals he had in high school.
Reagan answered in story form, telling the students about his days as a newscaster and life in the Depression, at one point injecting slogans from Nancy Reagan's antidrug campaign.
Staff writer Eugene L. Meyer contributed to this report.