Religious Sensitivity

America has a history of freedom of expression and religion for which all of us should be proud. It is this freedom that is protected by the separation of church and state. It is this freedom that is seen in the rich diversity of beliefs that coexist in our country.

As Robert F. Kennedy wrote: "Ultimately, America's answer to the intolerant man is diversity which our heritage of religious freedom has inspired."

At the start of every meeting run by Prince George's Board of Education member Kenneth E. Johnson (Mitchellville), he says a prayer, a very Christian prayer. These are for all practical purposes public meetings run if not by, then for, the school system. This violates if not the letter of the law, the spirit of the American constitutional requirement of the separation of church and state.

The prayer at the start of every Board of Education meeting is questionable in meeting the legal requirements, but at least it is nondenominational. Mr. Johnson prefaces his remarks by stating this may offend some people, but that he will continue anyway.

Well, it does offend some people, myself included. Mr. Johnson is very sensitive on issues of diversity and cultural awareness when it comes to race, but clearly quite insensitive when it comes to religion. Prince George's County is not 100 percent Christian.

There are religious minorities in this county that deserve consideration and respect. It is because of this diversity that religion and religious practices are left to the home and the church and not the schools. Mr. Johnson may feel he is meeting the needs of a special interest community, but he is elected to serve all of us.

It is very difficult to attend his meetings and obtain the critical information on issues impacting our schools and our children when he shows such disregard for some components of the community. Respect for the diverse elements of a community does not just mean others must respect my differences, it also means I must respect others' differences.

Mr. Johnson, as a representative of the Board of Education, has a responsibility to be even more sensitive to others than the average citizen. I would ask him to bring school system issues to meetings on education and to reserve his personal worship to his home and church.


-- Joan Roache


The Prince George's Extra recently asked readers to tell Iris T. Metts, the new school superintendent, what issues she should tackle.

A Teacher's Suggestions

As a teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, I would like to offer the following thoughts for your consideration.

1. Perception becomes reality.

For you to succeed, you must quickly stem the torrent of teachers leaving Prince George's. Teachers must believe that you will make a difference. They want to be certain that their concerns are being heard. I, therefore, suggest that you set a regular process of meeting with groups of teachers. This does not have to be a formal arrangement. You could, once a month, offer to have breakfast/lunch with a randomly selected/invited group of about 10 teachers to hear their concerns and share their ideas, with no other administrators present.

2. Follow-up and explain.

You will not be able to accomplish all you want to. Nor will you be able to meet all of the concerns people will raise with you. But when people have taken the time to communicate with you, it is important that they have a response, even if that response is "no" with an explanation. I have found in my teaching that when I explain what I am doing to my students, they will trust me more, even if they don't completely understand the explanation. My sense is that we, as teachers, would appreciate the respect demonstrated by this approach.

3. Keep the good experience.

You have a large number of talented individuals either already eligible for retirement, or quickly achieving that status. The loss of a large number of these people could seriously injure the system and your best efforts to stabilize and improve it. Quickly move to identify those people, solicit input about those who really produce and are really valuable and communicate with them to find out how you can persuade them to remain a part of the system. Here I note my own school, one of the best high schools in the nation, should probably get your attention. Our [top administrator], Gerald Boarman, has an outstanding track record. He will be very attractive to other districts and would be eligible to take his pension by the end of the next year. Surely there must be some way of either keeping him at Roosevelt or finding some other role that would draw on his experience of success. Also, if he leaves, can you retain the core of senior teachers eligible for retirement? Should, perhaps, you seek their input as you consider a replacement for Boarman whenever he chooses to leave? In fact, should there be more of a community role in the selection of educational leaders, one that includes in some way all of the stake holders--teachers, other staff, parents, students? Can this be done in a way that increases community commitment to the schools without giving any group a veto power over decisions that are properly yours?

4. Focus and support.

In your interview, you acknowledge that when you set up the magnet schools in Christina, Del., you perhaps went with too many. Likewise, many of the things former superindentent Jerome Clark tried were of themselves good ideas, but the number exceeded the resources and the managerial ability to support them. I have no problem with trying things that don't work: As educators, we should encourage our children to explore pathways that don't always pan out. But in a crisis situation, one must marshal resources more carefully. Further, the community is willing to devote more resources to the schools, but only if those resources are used wisely. Attempting too many things at once is like churning a stock market account: Most of the money goes for fees and not for productive uses. Also, new initiatives require commitment of staff. That staff wants to know that the efforts they put forth on behalf of new initiatives are being fully supported by the central administration. If not, staff unwillingness to commit can by itself lead to the failure of any initiative, even one with which they agree.

I wish you well. I look forward to your first year as the superintendent.

-- Kenneth Bernstein

Bernstein is a social studies teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt. He also has taught at Kettering Middle School.

On That 'Political Control'

I feel compelled to respond to former Prince George's Community College president (1971-72) L. James Harvey's letter entitled "Political Control" in the Prince George's Extra [July 7]. Harvey attempts to satirize and stereotype my expressions about the country club membership that was awarded the new PGCC president, but he has failed to secure the facts before rendering his soliloquy.

First, I have been a staunch supporter of the college and its goals. Two of my own children have attended the school. Before I would refer to someone's stewardship of the public trust as "laughable," I would certainly base my comments on a closer examination of the actual circumstances. Harvey is correct that the county had chronically failed, over many years, to appropriate more funds to the community college. Perhaps that has been based on a fear of how the money would be used. What Harvey is apparently unaware of is the high priority this council has placed on rectifying this long-standing problem. That is precisely why I was so upset about the "perks" package for the new president. For the first time in recent memory, the council had decided that additional county funding for the college was our top budget priority in our negotiations with the county executive. In fact, I personally negotiated an agreement with the executive to put an additional $500,000 of county funding in the Proposed FY2000 Budget for PGCC, up front.

They say that timing is everything. We learned of the new president's identity and his healthy salary package at the same time. We did not learn of either action from the Board of Trustees. Apparently, this was our reward for trying to improve PGCC's budget and guarantee that future spending priorities would recognize the council's desire to improve student services. The result was "laughable," not what we attempted to do. Perhaps Iris T. Metts, the new head of our 127,000-student public school system, would like a chauffeured limo and a country club membership at taxpayers' expense. She certainly deserves it.

-- M.H. Jim Estepp

Estepp, a Democrat who lives near Croom, is chairman of the County Council.

An Official's Audacity

I could not believe the audacity of County Council member [Thomas R.] Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) in his statement, "I don't think it's a good idea that we facilitate Republicans" to win elections. Hendershot states "the current set up gives [Republicans] the opportunity to win." [Prince George's Extra, June 30]

I can understand Hendershot trying to secure his seat, which he won in just such a special election. After all, he almost lost to a Republican. I guess Hendershot does not believe in democracy, fair campaigning or in the expense to be incurred by us, the taxpayers, for a special election.

Even those members of the Latino Independent Club not very fluent in English laughed at the gall and arrogance of Hendershot. Proceed with caution! Many voters such as I do not subscribe to the dirty partisan politics of some of our public officials.

-- Carmen Farinas-Camacho

Farinas-Camacho, of Silver Spring, chairs the Montgomery and Prince George's County Latino Independent Club.

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