Dear Superintendent Iris T. Metts:
As the new school year begins, I want to take this time and space to share with you some of my thoughts and observations about the Prince George's County school system. We have not met, but I am impressed by how confidently you have taken charge as the new superintendent of schools.
You may know that I wrote about the county's schools for nearly four years as a reporter for this newspaper. But I also live in Prince George's and count myself among those who desperately hope you will grab the reins and change the direction of a system speeding aimlessly into destruction.
Hope is what you represent to many of us residents. Hope that fresh, visionary, aggressive leadership will translate into improved academic performance. Hope that the schools will someday attract, instead of repel, big businesses, which say that quality public education is an important factor when deciding where to locate. Hope that the huge investment we have made in our homes will be worth more because the public schools are thriving.
I have only one child, a stepdaughter who lives in Dallas. But as much as I would love to have her with my husband and me, I consider it a blessing that I don't have to make the kind of tough decisions that some of my friends and neighbors face right now.
At a cookout recently in my Clinton community, I heard one of my neighbors mull over the possibility of moving to Calvert County, which has reasonably priced homes and a high-achieving school system. My neighbor has grown increasingly worried that her children, both in high school, are receiving an inferior education in Prince George's.
I'm grateful that I don't have to anguish over whether to leave Prince George's for a county with better public schools or scrimp to pay a private school tuition or scheme to get my child into one of the county's top-performing schools, none of which happens to be in my neighborhood.
Many middle-class parents can afford other options and are sending their children elsewhere. As a result, a county that houses the nation's wealthiest, best-educated black middle class has a public school system in which nearly half of the children are poor.
People got angry at Jerome Clark, your predecessor, when he pointed to the system's high poverty rate, the second-highest in Maryland, to explain low academic performance. But I sympathized with him a bit on that.
We all know that poor children can learn. We know, too, that many of the children have amazing parents who push them to succeed, despite their circumstances. But too many others are raised by single mothers who are barely adults themselves. Their homes don't have computers, and their mothers can't--or won't--read to them or take them to the library.
Television, with its ridiculous comedies and raunchy music videos, has become today's most popular babysitter. No wonder so many children can sing every word to "No Scrubs" but have trouble reading the same lyrics. I believe Prince George's educators who say they have to spend more time than do those in other districts teaching the basic academic and social skills that parents should have taught at home.
Common sense tells me that these students are at a disadvantage when asked to perform as well as their middle-class peers who grew up playing on a computer at home, visiting museums, reading books at bedtime and talking daily with educated parents who make them think.
Yet, Maryland holds all school systems to the same standards, and that is as it should be. Dr. Clark couldn't close the performance gap between poor and middle-class children in the county. A decent man, he really tried. I suspect that will be one of your toughest challenges as well.
You might start by finding a way to stem the exodus of experienced teachers from schools with large populations of poor, low-performing students. Teachers at such schools leave constantly in search of better working conditions, and the most needy schools end up with the least-experienced and often uncertified teachers. It makes no sense.
I've always noticed that the best schools have happy teachers, men and women who not only are highly competent but also are motivated, proud of their school and confident that their students can achieve. I don't have to tell you that you have a severe problem with low teacher morale this year.
A random poll conducted recently by this newspaper showed that teachers in Prince George's are more dissatisfied than teachers anywhere else in the region. About 72 percent of Prince George's teachers said they were unhappy with their pay, compared with an average of 46 percent elsewhere. That wasn't surprising, given that the county loses loads of teachers each year to nearby jurisdictions that pay more.
But here's what astonished me: Sixty-eight percent of the high school teachers polled in Prince George's agreed that a high school diploma from their schools did not guarantee a student had learned the basics. If teachers have such low confidence in the system, how do you think parents feel?
People say money isn't everything, but do you know that Montgomery County spends about $200 million more each year for a school system that is about the same size as Prince George's? I have to believe that makes a difference.
Last year, a Fairfax County school bought $700 laptop computers for every fifth-grader and trained parents to help at home. In Prince George's, parents had to fight just to get every child a textbook. How sad.
But you have wasted no time reorganizing the administration with top deputies from out of state. Folks are hoping you will be another John Murphy. I'm sure you've encountered the ghost of this former superintendent, who served from 1984 to 1991. I hear he had plenty of pizazz, that he was visionary and proactive, that he could wheel and deal politically, that he persuaded the community to believe schools were good and getting better.
It's hard to say how much better schools really were back then, since the controversial Maryland School Performance Assessment Program--the test that has caused Prince George's such grief--came after he left. But his ghost has haunted every superintendent since. You will be no exception.
Dr. Metts, you have one of the toughest, most important jobs imaginable. Parents entrust the significant formative years of their children's lives to the system you have promised to reform. They are weary. We all are.
At least now, though, we have hope.
To comment or suggest a story idea, feel free to write me at 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772; send me an e-mail at frazierL@washpost.com; or call me at 301-952-2083.
CAPTION: Esther Offiah, of the C. Elizabeth Rieg Special Center, holds a sign welcoming Superintendent Iris T. Metts at a convocation for school employees.
CAPTION: County Executive Wayne K. Curry shakes hands with Superintendent Iris T. Metts at a school employees convocation last week. In center is Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent.