Dear Homeroom:

As a parent who moved to Prince George's County last year, I'd like to know what is being done to improve low-performing schools. When we enrolled our son in the local public school, we had no idea that the school had been considered for possible reconstitution. In fact, the only information we were given was the date of the first day of school. I wasn't even told where to drop off my child. Thankfully, the school has a new principal this year. From what I can see so far, he's doing an excellent job. He and the staff seem to be very dedicated to improving student achievement, but I know they can't do it alone. What kind of help can they expect from the district? I've read about our new superintendent of schools. Wonderful! But how long will it be before we see some changes?

R. Bracey

Clinton

The threat that the state will take over a school and "reconstitute" it is the biggest threat any state has in its arsenal to jolt schools into action. Maryland has yet to actually take over a school, but it has placed 88 schools in the state on the "reconstitution-eligible" list, including nine in Prince George's.

Actually, Maryland doesn't really want to reconstitute a school. It is tricky, and other states haven't been particularly successful at it. The state's main aim is to make the school better so that all its students are learning and achieving at high levels. To that end, when a school is placed on the reconstitution-eligible list, it is required to file two plans--a one-year emergency-action plan and a longer-term plan that requires a year to develop. Those plans are supposed to be drawn up by "stakeholders"--the principal, the teachers and other staff, the parents and the general community. The plans are to embody concrete steps the school is taking to improve and thus avoid state takeover.

Those steps might include staff development, tutoring programs, summer school, changes in time allocation--whatever the school community believes will help. State officials then go over the plans carefully and approve them or suggest changes based on current research. The local jurisdiction--in this case, the Prince George's public schools--is supposed to draw experienced and skilled staff from all its other schools to help reconstitution-eligible schools, and the state ponies up a chunk of money, depending on the number of students, to support the changes required by the plans. The state also sends a monitor who is supposed to visit reconstitution-eligible schools every week and might sit in on school improvement committee meetings.

As a parent concerned about your school, your first step might be to look at the school improvement plan, which should be in the school's office. You also might want to ask to be on the school improvement committee. As a beginning point, look at all the data for your school. It is posted on the Web, along with the data for all the schools in the state, at www.mdk12.org/mspp/index.html. Plan on spending a while wandering around in there, because there is a lot of information. For example, you can find out how many of your school's students demonstrated a knowledge of numbers, the ability to read for information, and the other skills the state tests.

The data there now is the 1998 data, but the 1999 data is scheduled to be posted, along with new trend analyses, on Dec. 1. You also can see, for example, whether boys in your school are doing worse than girls--in most schools they are--and find other schools with similar demographics that are doing better. You can then find out what those schools are doing to improve their scores.

By the way, school improvement teams, which are supposed to use this data to make changes, are not only for low-performing schools. All schools in the state are supposed to have them, because they are all supposed to be improving. And a piece of good news that recently came out was that, along with many other schools in Prince George's, two that are on the reconstitution-eligible list--Beacon Heights and Seabrook elementary schools--posted such gains on the state tests last year that they received state certificates. To see a full list of schools that received certificates for improvements, go to www.msde.state.md.us/ and click on the news story about the state granting awards to schools.

It's Tough to Transfer

Dear Homeroom:

What is the policy in Prince George's County public schools for transfers to a school outside your area?

Murriel Crawford

Laurel

The policy is that you shouldn't transfer. Well, okay, it's a bit more nuanced than that--but not much.

The general policy is that students should attend the school they are assigned to according to where they live. The biggest exception, of course, is when a student attends a magnet school. But there are some other reasons students are allowed to attend schools other than their home school. If you are planning to move fairly soon and want your child to go to school near your new home, you may request a transfer--but you need to provide a lease or some documentation of your intended move. If your child wants to pursue a particular line of study not offered at his or her home school--such as a particular foreign language--he or she may request a transfer. Or if the student for some reason is having a terrible time--academically, medically or personally--you can request that he or she be given a fresh start somewhere else, although the school system requires quite a bit of convincing on these grounds. Transfers also may be permitted if your child is taken care of before or after school by someone who lives in the enrollment area of another school.

But generally speaking, from the school system's point of view, students should stay put. And, although that sounds rigid and unfeeling, there is actually some educational justification for it. Student mobility is a difficult problem for most school systems, and some Prince George's schools have particular problems with the issue. Schools sometimes begin the school year with a set of students, and by the end of the year, a third of their student body--or more--is different. Any attempts to build on skills and previous knowledge of students requires that students stick around--not just through a school year but through all their years of school. Most students lose a little bit academically for every move they make. In fact, some school systems are thinking along the lines of trying to keep students in their schools even if they move into the area of another school, just to minimize the disruption in their education.

But there are certainly times when a transfer is the best thing for a child, and Prince George's has a set of guidelines to follow to request a transfer. Each school is required to have printed copies of the transfer brochure (ST 75) as well as the forms to request a transfer (ST1), the Medical Report Form (ST2) and the Pupil Transfer Request Based on Before and After School Care (ST1B). If your school does not have those forms, request them from the Office of Student Transfers at 301-952-6366, which is where you need to file any requests.

Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinions and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20072. The fax number is 301-952-1397. Or you can e-mail homeroom@washpost.com.