In an article yesterday about Prince George's County mag net schools, parent Ann Davidson was quoted as saying the system should set competitive entry standards for magnet programs. She was referring to high school magnet programs only, not to all magnet programs. (Published 11/24/99)
Walk into a Montessori class at Flintstone Elementary and you'll see many of the hallmarks of that program: students of various ages working by themselves or in small groups and using blocks and beads instead of textbooks.
But you'll also see many things that conflict with the Montessori approach. Announcements over a loudspeaker distract students from their work, portable classrooms leave pupils no room to spread out and no running water is available for hands-on science experiments. And while the Montessori method suggests having music, computer and gym in succession, those classes are broken up with academic lessons.
The problem, parents and educators at the Prince George's County school say, is that the school is not committed to the Montessori approach. Only about half of the 683 students are enrolled in the program, which was created 13 years ago to help encourage integration at the predominantly African American school. The other half are taught the county's regular academic curriculum in more traditional classroom settings.
With two distinctly different academic philosophies under the same roof, it's only natural that they would conflict, parents say. Furthermore, growing enrollment has contributed to severe crowding, forcing Flintstone's computer, music and art rooms to be converted into classrooms.
"You do not have a pure Montessori. You have a hybrid. There are too many variables, and you have an administration not familiar with the program," said Russell Butler, one of the parents who want all Montessori students grouped in their own schools.
That is one of the many options school officials will be considering over the next six months as they try to determine how to revamp the county's 28 elementary magnet schools. A recent report by a school system task force found that many are falling short of their goals.
The school system founded the magnet programs to encourage integration and offer students a choice of curricula, many with more-rigorous academics. But the report said 11 of the schools have not attracted enough white students to meet their racial goals and nine do not teach the specialized curricula they advertise.
And while the magnet schools generally posted higher averages on state exams than non-magnets, researchers concluded that was primarily because students with higher academic ability entered the programs.
Superintendent Iris T. Metts and school board members say they are committed to magnet schools as a way to continue encouraging integration as the system phases out 25 years of court-ordered busing. But they also promise to place a greater emphasis on academic achievement.
"The purpose is no longer the same," Metts said. "We have to make sure the schools are accountable and . . . meet their academic goals."
Parents, teachers and administrators say many magnet schools must overcome myriad problems: crowded classrooms, a lack of adequately trained teachers, a deemphasis of the specialized curriculum in favor of instruction geared toward the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests and inadequate support and commitment from the central office.
Perhaps most affected are the county's six traditional academies and academic centers, which offer more rigorous academics, including Latin, and stronger discipline, sometimes including uniforms.
At Middleton Valley Elementary in Temple Hills, the orderliness of the building is noticeable. Boys in uniform navy slacks and ties and girls in plaid skirts are quiet and well behaved as Principal Deborah J. Moore walks through the building doing a "necktie check."
But peek inside the classrooms, and some of the problems that have contributed to low test scores become clear.
For example, the school's fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classes all have 34 to 39 students. Some must share terminals in the computer lab, which has only 33 workstations. Moore said that she would like to add two teachers to help relieve the crowding but that the central administration has not been able to find candidates.
Cynthia Mason-Posey, whose sixth-grade daughter is in a class of 38 students, is outraged that a school that is supposed to offer more rigorous academics does not have enough teachers.
"We're extremely unhappy. We don't know what to do," said Mason-Posey, who has considered sending her daughter to private school. "The [school] Web site says they offer Latin, but they get it one hour a week from a part-time teacher. It's idle promises."
Teachers are not the only resource in short supply. The task force report found that the cash-strapped school system had not adequately updated technology in the communications and the science and technology magnet schools.
"I've always said that magnets cannot succeed in an underfunded school system," said school board Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland), who helped develop them.
In addition, some parents and principals say an increasing focus on state test scores has undercut the once-unique curricula of some magnet programs such as the talented and gifted magnets and traditional academies.
"If you're truly committed to magnets, then the system has to allow some more flexibility and freedom for magnets to do what they're supposed to do," said Joan Roache, a parent and member of the task force that wrote the magnet report.
And the most successful magnet programs, such as French immersion and creative and performing arts, often are heavily supported by parents who volunteer and help fund the programs.
For example, Rogers Heights Elementary in Bladensburg offers a French immersion program that is among the most popular and successful magnets in the county.
About half the school's students are in the magnet program, but their parents raise money that helps fund field trips for all students. The parents also run after-school tutoring and computer classes and oversee clubs for art, music, chess and drama, which all students can join.
"When we go on field trips, we have more French immersion parents than we need," said Kona-Facia Freeman-Nepay, a fourth-grade teacher.
Remarkably, the school is one of the most crowded in the county, with 11 portable classrooms. But the principal has been able to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes in part because she does not fear hiring uncertified teachers.
Most of the French immersion teachers come from French-speaking nations and do not have U.S. teaching certificates, said Francis Renson, the magnet coordinator.
Parents support that philosophy and say the teachers' diverse backgrounds help their children learn the French language and culture more quickly.
"The program deliberately seeks people who are native speakers of French, as this is one of the academic and cultural strengths of the program," said Ann Davidson, whose daughter placed first in a national French competition last year.
Still, Davidson believes one way to improve academic performance in magnet programs is to set academic admissions standards. Only the talented and gifted program has such criteria. Admission to other magnet programs is based on race, to promote diversity within schools, and students are selected by lottery.
The lottery system has been complicated in recent years by the changing demographics of the county. Today, 76 percent of the student body is African American, and many black students remain on waiting lists as schools seek non-black students to fill the slots.
Metts and school board members said they may develop a new system that would give students of all races greater access to magnet programs.
"The demographics of the county have changed dramatically from the time the federal court got involved," Metts said. "If you are going to have a multicultural goal for magnet schools, you have to reexamine it in terms of the current population makeup."
CAPTION: First-graders Natakik Duncan, left, and Elizabeth Dunwiddie quiz their classmates in the French program at Rogers Heights Elementary.
CAPTION: Rogers Heights Elementary fourth-grader Vykiita Gillespie is enrolled in the popular French immersion program.