Teachers in Prince George's County say they want more money, more administrative support and more classroom resources. New School Superintendent Iris T. Metts says she will deliver.
Less than two weeks into the job, Metts says she recognizes there is a morale problem among teachers, but she says her plan to increase salaries, streamline management and improve teacher training will make a difference.
Already, Metts has replaced the system's personnel director, mandated that the school system stop hiring uncertified teachers, and put a hiring freeze on the central office staff--which she believes is bloated and inefficient.
She also intends to study salaries to determine where the largest pay gaps are between teachers in Prince George's and neighboring counties; to begin tying principals' contracts to their ability to keep teachers at their schools; and to start grading the performance of schools.
"From what I have observed in a short period here, teachers are unhappy," and some are leaving the county schools, said Metts, who left her position as Delaware's education secretary to succeed retiring superintendent Jerome Clark on July 1. "We have to look at two things: One is salary. Are we paying competitive salaries? And number two, are we being as supportive as we can be?"
Teachers answer those questions with a resounding no, according to a recent Washington Post poll, which found that nowhere in the region are high school teachers more dissatisfied than they are in Prince George's.
Poll results showed that 72 percent of the county's public high school teachers said they were not satisfied with their pay, compared with an average of 46 percent throughout the Washington region. Prince George's Board of Education recently approved an extra $7 million to raise teachers' salaries, hoping to make the pay more competitive with neighboring districts. But teachers said that's only a start.
In Prince George's, 49 percent of high school teachers said their classes had too many students; 38 percent said their school buildings were in poor condition; 45 percent said at least half of their students began the school year unprepared to handle the course work; and 68 percent agreed that a high school diploma from their schools did not guarantee a student had learned the basics. All of those percentages were far higher than the regional average.
"This is how happy I am: I just typed up my resignation," said Peter Halvorson, a social studies teacher at DuVal High School in Lanham. "The system's broke, and I don't mean financially. I sit and watch kids fall through the cracks for five years, and I don't see much indication the county gives a damn."
For language teacher Teresa DePalma, it wasn't the mouse crawling up her classroom wall at Bladensburg High that persuaded her to quit last month and to enroll in manager's training at Sam's Club, the grocery super store. It wasn't the $400 to $500 of her own money she spent each year on supplies for students or that the school seemed to lack direction under its fourth principal in five years.
No, what finally pushed DePalma past the breaking point was the late spring days when her classroom in the non-air-conditioned building felt like a sauna.
"I'm on the third floor, and by 8:30 it was burning up in the classroom--at least 115 degrees," she said. "I kept telling the kids I was going to take an egg and crack it on the windowsill. I bet it would have cooked. The kids knew it was terrible. Their heads were down. To tell you the truth, it was wasted time to teach on those days. We were just going through the motions."
Officials say that about 10 percent of the county's 8,000 teachers may resign this year before they are eligible for full retirement benefits, compounding a problem in a county where a state-high 18 percent of the teachers are uncertified.
In her first step toward attacking the teacher shortage, Metts last week accepted the resignation of the personnel director, Horatio Wilkinson, who initially tried to leave the system two months ago. Metts replaced him on a temporary basis with Eleanor White, a veteran of the system who had been working with Wilkinson on teacher recruitment.
Prince George's has hired nearly 700 of the 1,300 teachers it will need by mid-August, Metts said, and about 10 percent of them are uncertified. Metts said she has instructed White to hire no more uncertified teachers and believes that the system can fill the remaining 600 vacancies with certified teachers.
Other problems persist. The county plans to build at least 13 schools in the next six years, but for now many buildings are crowded and in poor condition.
Malone Samuels, an art teacher at Central High in Capitol Heights, said he began the school year with 34 students in one class and ended with 48.
"When I contacted the administration, no one did anything. That was a horror story," Samuels said. "Students are cranked in and ground out as quickly as possible. I know in my heart that many of the students who leave school are ill-prepared in terms of even being functionally literate."
Teachers say the conditions--half of the 20 high schools do not have air conditioning--have contributed to more student discipline problems.
"Discipline is horrendous," said Lawrence Wells, a teacher at Oxon Hill High. "You try to discipline them, send them to an administrator, but nothing is done and they're back in class. It's a recurring problem. The teacher is helpless."
Bladensburg math teacher Clyde Browne said he decided to quit after a student threw food at him this past school year.
"A lot of kids don't have the discipline or the parental guidance to show how important education is," Browne said. "I have a kid who comes by and buys a new pencil every day. I said, 'What happened to the last one?'
He said, 'I threw it away.' We try to give them calculators, but they take out the batteries to put in their Walkman. It becomes a pain and detracts from the education."
DePalma says that many teachers have all but given up. "It seems we have low expectations for them," she said. "They don't come prepared and don't do their homework."
In fact, 56 percent of the poll respondents say it's at least fairly common for Prince George's teachers to promote students to the next grade as long as they try hard and attend class regularly, even if they have not mastered the subject matter.
"Every year, I think the standards hit rock bottom, but they keep getting worse," said Eugene Robertson, who has taught science and foreign language at Parkdale High. "Students virtually refuse to do homework. Teachers give credit for coming to class and not causing problems in class."
Metts said she intends to review the county's curriculum and develop ways to hold students more accountable for the basic skills before they are passed to the next grade.
One way, she said, is to require students to achieve minimum scores on countywide tests.
Metts said that streamlining the central office by reducing the number of staff members and redefining their roles will free more resources for the classrooms.
"On the surface, there's a lot of good in the county, such as the level of commitment to in-school training," said Ken Bernstein, a social studies teacher at Roosevelt High in Greenbelt. "But then you get into the question of reality and follow-up. There's not a high degree of confidence in the system's ability to straighten things out."
Richard Morin, The Post's director of polling, contributed to this report.
Prince George's Teachers' Preference
Percentage of teachers who say they would stick with their current school district, even if they had the option of teaching anywhere in the Washington area:
SOURCE: Results of this Washington Post teachers poll came from telephone interviews with 802 randomly selected public high school classroom teachers in the greater Washington area, conducted May 24 through June 28. The margin of error for overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The margin of error for individual districts reported is: plus or minus 7 percentage points for D.C. and Montgomery; plus or minus 7.5 percentage points for Fairfax; and plus or minus 8 percentage points for Prince George's. Sampling error is only one source of error in this or any other opinion poll. A more detailed explanation of how this survey was conducted is available on The Post's Web site at www.washingtonpost.com.
CAPTION: Prince George's Superintendent Iris T. Metts says the school district needs to look at salaries and support for teachers.
CAPTION: Teacher Malone Samuels: "Students are cranked in and ground out as quickly as possible."