For Michael and Cheli Figaro, there is no better place to raise their son Brandon than Prince George's County.
Their 6-year-old is growing up in a community where he sees positive role models in people of all races and creeds. They live in close proximity to Washington, Annapolis and Baltimore, which provides them with varied cultural and entertainment choices.
But they also see some drawbacks. Cheli teaches Brandon at home because the Figaros are appalled by the county's public schools. They travel to Annapolis for higher quality retail stores. And when they want a night out, Michael takes Cheli into the District because they feel there are no nice restaurants and clubs here.
But despite that, the couple agreed, they wouldn't be anywhere else.
"We felt the only place to raise our child was Atlanta or the Washington, D.C., area, and we are very happy in Prince George's County for what we can give our son here," said Cheli Figaro, 36. "Historically, when black people live together, it's labeled a ghetto. . . . Prince George's County has a solid black middle class that provides role models for our son outside of his daddy and his mommy. That is exactly what we wanted for him."
As Prince George's County residents ponder what the new millennium holds for their children, elected leaders, educators and law enforcement officials said young people will fare better here in the years to come.
There are several factors that give them reason for optimism.
The county, which grew from fewer than 30,000 to nearly 800,000 during the 20th century, is seeing the emergence of new coalitions of educated professionals, longtime blue-collar families and immigrants determined to set the legislative agenda. And topping their list are the children. Parents and business leaders are demanding better schools for the 166,000 Prince Georgians between the ages of 5 and 19.
"It is clear that parents consider their children their most important priority here, and they are demanding that others make them a priority as well," said Minerva Sanders, president of the local council of PTAs. "There is a bright future for our children in that the county has awakened to the fact that we have to come together to do what is in their best interest."
On one level, the county Office of Child Support Enforcement plans to increase the amount of time staff members spend on casework through an 8.5 percent increase in funding over the $52.6 million the agency received in fiscal 1999. The agency also plans to establish a customer service unit to improve its response time.
County funding for family services increased by 15.6 percent this fiscal year, which ends June 30, bringing the operating budget for the department to $14.6 million.
On another level, George's enters the new millennium with flagging standardized test scores, about 40 percent of its children on free and reduced-price meals, and thousands of children who have come from troubled District schools. Teacher morale is low, and salaries lag. And Prince George's spends less on schools than nearby jurisdictions: $6,585 per student per year compared with $8,287 in Montgomery.
Yet, county leaders expect a turnaround soon.
Del. Rushern L. Baker III (D-Cheverly), head of the county delegation in Annapolis, said elected officials believe change is imminent because of a commitment by parents, educators and legislators to children.
All eyes are on the new superintendent, Iris T. Metts, who took the helm of the 130,000-student school system in August with a mandate to increase test scores, reduce class sizes and recruit parents into the educational process on a larger scale.
"The new superintendent has her finger on the pulse of how the school system should operate and the things to do to turn the schools around," said Sam Dean, president of the the Lake Arbor Civic Association. "She's talking about putting in innovative programs, doing outreach with community groups and getting more parents involved."
County Council member M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Croom) said the picture will continue to improve because the powers-that-be have realized that education is key. "There is a quote by President Lyndon Johnson that said the answer to all our problems is in one word--education," Estepp said.
"That relates directly to my optimism for our children," he said. "We are in the process of expanding early learning programs in the county, Head Start is still vibrant at the federal level, day-care access is more prevalent. There is a huge emphasis on getting a superior education and mentoring young people that I think will lead to improvements throughout our system."
Estepp also pointed to the construction of the new Sports and Learning Center Complex in Landover, where children will receive instruction in computer skills and job training, as well as physical fitness programs. (The opening has been delayed because of contract disputes).
Baker, father of two children in Prince George's public schools, said he believes the system will be among the best in the state within 10 years because of efforts by legislators, educators and increasingly active parents, who are beginning to take a greater role in improving the public schools.
"The activism of parents has increased tremendously," Baker said. "The first four years I was in Annapolis, there was not as much involvement from parents and PTA in what's going on in terms of money and quality of education in Prince George's County. With that combination, it leads me to believe we are headed in the right direction."
State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson, the father of a 13-year-old son, said he believes the county will do more in the coming years to provide after-care programs for latch-key children, who would otherwise spend hours home alone waiting for their parents to return from work.
"The only opportunity kids have is to get a good education, and they can't get it in a frightened environment," he said. "We've been able to make schools safe without adopting the zero-tolerance mania around the country that is leading some to throw kids out who could have been helped by prevention measures."
Johnson, whorequires his son to read Time magazine from cover to cover each week, said parents are becoming more educated about getting their children educated. "I talked to parents about high expectations and motivation for their kids," Johnson said. "When I talk to kids, I tell them, 'You have the brainpower to be whatever you want to be. Now, you have to get the other things, like the work ethic.' "
CAPTION: Danielle Miller, 7, left, of Laurel, has her hands painted by Laurel student Mariama Calokoh, 16, at an arts and crafts table at a Laurel High School festival.