This is the second installment in the conversation between Prince George's County School Superintendent Iris T. Metts and reporters and editors at The Washington Post. A partial transcript of the discussion is printed here.
Q. There seems to be a constant turnover of teachers at the schools that perhaps need the most experience. The union obviously will try to fight any attempt to pay those teachers more. What can you do?
A. I think that's going to be something that we will negotiate with the association. One of the deputies that I brought in is a very strong negotiator, and I brought him in . . . for that purpose. We need some help from the union. . . . The union is paying 50 percent of the costs of the compensation study. So they're fully aware of the issues that are facing us right now.
So are you saying that that is something that you want?
Absolutely. We need incentives, we need support. We need a different attitude toward compensation. There's definitely a different challenge in some schools than in others. We need to reward successful schools more, the schools that are just doing an outstanding job with communities that really present a challenge. They should, we should recognize that and reward those teachers. . . .
What did you see in Delaware that affected student achievement positively that you think would be most applicable to what you would need to do in Prince George's?
Delaware is totally different.
So there aren't any lessons that you can draw from. . .
Well, there are some. Delaware students performed average on national tests. Delaware felt that the per capita income in the state was the fifth highest in the nation so they shouldn't have average achievement. So that rank was not being, that rank was just being average, they thought that we should have had a [superior] school district. So that's the challenge in Delaware. It wasn't, this wasn't the same challenge here. We have a school system performing well below the state average. I mean it's just waiting. So the challenge is to restore confidence in bringing the achievement levels up slowly. And in Delaware what they had to do was to go back and look at their disadvantaged students, because those are the students who brought the test scores down to the average point, because we were not accelerating our students. Totally different, you know.
But that's the approach that most districts around here are taking: looking at their poor-performing students and putting most of their resources there. Is that the answer?
Uh-huh. Particularly in inner-Beltway schools. When we bring in the 10,000 mentors that we want to bring in--which, by the way, we will roll that out gradually. Now that's a sophisticated operation to bring in 10,000, and by the way, we brought in 10,000 in Delaware. We did it. I mean it isn't something that you just say you're going to do, you can do it. But this is a structured mentoring program. And what do I mean by structured? You train the people who are mentors, you relate the mentoring to literacy. . . . Yes, you'd want to target those kids who are most in need.
How much of a problem do you think it is with professionals in Prince George's County whose expectations for the students particularly are too low?
I think it's a problem. As with any system that is suffering a morale problem, you have low expectations. That's not unusual. But I think we need to come out of that, we need to expect the best of all of our students. One of the things that I saw clearly at the convocation was a narration of an opera [by Suitland High School students], and it was just magnificent. Here are these poor kids coming up, you know, perhaps not being exposed to opera, but once they got a taste of it with the right instructor, who had the right set of expectations for them, they were absolutely magnificent. And it can be done.
While you talk about teachers . . . low achievement of students is also due to the lack of parental involvement. . . .
We're going to work with the PTA council and convene a group of parents and community leaders and church leaders. I met recently with about 200 ministers, and they are committed to helping us. Most of the ministers of Prince George's County are part of this group. And they want to help us bring the families back into the schools and to support our efforts to help students. So we have an organized effort among PTA groups, ministers and community leaders in general, and I think what's going to happen ultimately is that we have to battle the same things that other people have to battle: time, busy parents. . . .
Oh, reaching out to the parents. It's difficult. I mean, they're moving. We're going to use technology more. But mostly we're going to have to go out to those neighborhoods and entice people to come back to the schools and to make schools very friendly, open places for parents.
I was in a school, two schools last night for the parent and a back-to-school night. You could not find a parking space. It was wonderful. I was very happy not to have a parking space . . . and we had to park almost down about a half-mile from the school. It was just so crowded and overflowing with parents. And it is wonderful to see so many parents. It was wonderful to see so many parents bring their children to school for the first day. So parents are beginning to understand the importance of being there, supporting their children and being a visible part of the community. But that's something that you have to open the school up to those parents--some of them have failed in school, and they feel very rejected about coming into that school--make it less bureaucratic.
I'm going to work with the PTA, as I said, the ministers, with the community in general and find some ways to further educate parents about the need to support us and to also connect our school people to better ways of opening up the schools to parents. In all neighborhoods, and I don't mean upper-middle-class neighborhoods, we're seeing parents coming into the schools in big numbers and helping out in the schools. I think that's important. Sometimes parents need to feel welcome to come in and to help out.
There is also a concern that you have not touched upon, and that's economic development, and I have to say something about that. I will establish a business roundtable, and I've been meeting with a series of business groups, the chamber, the Realtors, just a whole series of groups. I'm told that if the development of the harbor area and the riverfront area, that we may have potentially 10,000 additional jobs coming into Prince George's County. And we've developed with the work-force development initiative a collaborative between all of the major universities, the business community, to train our young people for school-to-work opportunities. Doesn't mean that we're abandoning any significant academic standards for them. We're going to have Advanced Placement, college courses, we're going to try to get more and more of our kids to attend university. But even after you finish university work, I think the parents would like you to have a job. So school-to-work transition is very important to our community.
So we're going to establish in each of our high schools a specific training modular connected to a university that will make sure that our youngsters are well prepared for work. We will also coordinate the efforts with the business community so that they will help us train in a specific area, whether it's customer relations, retailing, manufacturing, technology. . . .
We have 10,000 opportunities for jobs in Prince George's alone, and I can imagine all over this area. And we really aren't preparing kids properly to enter some of those jobs. You talk to any of the technology people and they're importing people from other countries, because our students are not being trained properly to take those jobs.
Can you talk about magnet schools?
There's a competition, you know, between parents who send children to magnet schools and parents [who don't]. . . . They apparently want to tell some parents that it's unfair to have schools with more resources. . . . But then again, a lot of people say that were it not for magnet schools, they would be in private school.
Are you going to keep the magnet schools?
. . . My first job was as a magnet school principal, so I'm not anti-magnet school. . . . The problem was not a problem alone with magnet schools. It's a problem of how do you organize a school system after a court order? . . . Once you gain control of the schools, and the federal courts no longer decide where kids go to schools or where your enrollments are in a particular district, a board then has to adopt a philosophy . . . about the range of schools. Prince George's has not really come to a full understanding about the board policy and the enrollment zones for schools. Do you want neighborhood schools? Do you want magnet schools? What kind of school system do you wish to have? . . . Those questions have not been answered, and it is something that I will work on with the board, make some recommendations to the board.
It seems to me that it's very possible to have in Prince George's County a combination of neighborhood schools that are strong--not just neighborhood schools. . . . And all of that needs to be decided within the context of school instruction, assignment of enrollment zones and transportation. . . . We have one board in our transportation, our cabinet, our room--and by the way, I think I must have been the first superintendent to ever visit with the transportation [staff]. They were shocked. They were falling out of the offices; they were running out to shake my hand. It was amazing. I don't think any other superintendent had ever been in there.
So I toured the transportation department because I'd had complaints about the buses. And there's this one board, we have 14 different bus yards, which we need to work to eliminate that, and this one guy was there and he understood exactly how to schedule all of his buses from 14 different yards all over Prince George's County.
And I said to this guy, I'm going to assign someone to take you home each night because if anything happens to you, well, God forbid, if you're hit by a car or anything, no one will know how to do this. And I said then I'm going to computerize the system, because that's the greatest efficiency, and that's the way to really preserve the information.
For the first time, we put the bus routes on the Web page. You can just call up the school, but there is no concept of organization in our neighborhoods. We have more arguments at the school district about when there's no school in our neighborhood. There is no school in my neighborhood, the quality of the school in my neighborhood is not as good as a magnet school, and the magnet parents are saying, well, I'm on a waiting list, and I'm going to get into a magnet school. . . .
We talked a lot about problems today. And the last question will be on a cheerier note. When you came to the system, is there anything that surprised you in a good way that you can look at and say, well gee, this is something, this is a strength to build on?
Oh gosh, there were so many schools that were recognized as exemplary schools nationally. Just tons of schools. I mean I was surprised at the number of them. They were just outstanding schools. I was also surprised at the number of, the amount of money of scholarships that students had earned.
I was also surprised, pleasantly surprised I would say, at just the welcome among our students. When you read about our school system, it's always the administrative problem and you really don't get the sense of how good our students are. And then new teachers, you don't really get a sense of how good our teachers are. . . . As a matter of fact, I'm extremely encouraged at the instruction staff that we have. I'm extremely encouraged also by the amount of support in the community for public education. There isn't a leader at the state or county level that didn't pledge support. No one has come up to me personally and said, you know, I think you ought to just dump the whole school system.
What they're saying to me is that we're hoping that you can make things better. We're ready to help you make things better. I've been extremely encouraged by that kind of support. And if we continue to work together, I'm certain we're going to do better. I wouldn't be here, I constantly heard and I heard this in some school systems, just you know, tear the whole thing out and start all over again, it's just bad. We never read that in Prince George's. We heard: You have some good points, you have some wonderful schools. We need to make sure that all of our schools are wonderful. So I'm very enthusiastic and happy about being here. It's doable. I'm proud of our teachers, I'm proud of how hard they work. And I'm proud of our students and I'm proud of their parents who stuck with us.