When Prince George's public schools open Monday, the bulk of the county's school-age children -- 137,000 -- will be in them.
But despite living in a county with one of the nation's largest school systems, many children will not be participating in it, having been steered by their parents and guardians to private or religious schools. Others will be sitting at kitchen tables and in makeshift classrooms in their homes with their parents as their teachers.
Indeed, non-public education is a strong option in Prince George's for parents who are looking for alternatives to the traditional public setting. Some of those parents may be seeking a smaller, more close-knit environment for their child. Others may be looking for a religious component. Whatever their needs, Prince George's has them.
According to the State Department of Education, there are 141 non-public or private schools in the county. Statewide, there are 1,189 private schools.
In fact, Prince George's County is among the leaders in opening new private schools, a spokesman for the State Department of Education said. The county also has one of the largest home-school populations in the state.
In the 2002-03 school year, there were 20,676 home-schoolers in Maryland, 3,018 in Prince George's and 2,252 in Montgomery County, according to the State Department of Education.
One of the county's newest private schools -- the Mitchellville School, an independent program that focuses on math, science and technology -- offers parents even more options. The school, on Mitchellville Road in the Bowie Alliance Church, stresses a rigorous academic program in a year-round school calendar. The three-year-old school currently has 34 students in kindergarten through fifth grade and is planning to add a grade every year until it becomes a full K-12 school.
Religious schools are also popular among Prince George's parents.
The county has 29 parochial schools serving students from preschool to 12th grade, said Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington.
Although public schools are the dominant choice for Prince's George's parents, Weitzel-O'Neill said, religious schools offer something different for students, depending on what their families seek. Many non-public schools boast of smaller classes and pupil-teacher ratios, for example, while church-run schools incorporate religious components.
Unlike public schools, where religious teachings are prohibited, students who attend church-run schools can, for example, use their free time to study the Bible, and they can express their faith as openly as they please.
"We are meeting a void here in Prince George's County for high-ability students," Frances Luckett, principal of the Mitchellville School, said, adding that the small school community makes it easier to reach the students. "When you have smaller classes, you can teach. When you have large classes and have to discipline students, you can't meet the needs of every child."
The program works for Nancy Folks of Glendale, who is president of the Mitchellville School Parents Association.
"There maybe 32 different students here," said Folks, who has two children at the school, "but we are one family."
Teachers agree, as was evident one recent morning in Jane LeMay's fourth- and fifth-grade science class. As the students huddled around plastic bottles capped with balloons to learn how certain products emit gas, she watched, wide-eyed and satisfied with their curiosity and her own.
"I feel like I can grow here," LeMay said.