On Monday, 199 public schools will begin a new academic year in Prince George's County. But only one will be coming home.
Bladensburg High School is back in its namesake town after a four-year sojourn in Bowie.
Beginning in 2001, Bladensburg teachers and students trekked to a former middle school site 12 miles to the east while their old campus was being razed and a new one built in its place.
Earline Richardson, a science teacher coordinator who has worked 28 years for the school, said she savored the return to Bladensburg. Once again, she's just down the street from a favorite fish store, BK Seafood, and a favorite bakery, Rolling Pin, along Route 450.
Richardson also raved about the classroom science laboratories in the new five-story Bladensburg High campus on 57th Avenue. In one lab she pointed to a device, labeled "the ultimate germicidal cabinet," that uses ultraviolet radiation to clean student goggles after experiments. There are also ventilating hoods in each lab, a plethora of Internet jacks, dishwashers to clean flasks and beakers, and refrigerators to store chemicals and other classroom materials.
"I feel like I'm coming home -- yes, I do," Richardson said one recent morning as she was setting up the science wing. "The people of Bladensburg deserve this."
She was quick to praise the school's former Bowie neighbors. Despite initial suspicions from some quarters -- generating talk of social-class divisions and possible racial bias -- most people in Bowie welcomed the kids and teachers from inside the Beltway who camped in the Belair Annex during the $59 million Bladensburg construction project.
"I enjoyed Bowie," Richardson said. "The people were very pleasant. We didn't have any problem with them. But it's nice getting back to the community here."
The rebirth of a school such as Bladensburg High is, in some ways, emblematic of the county system as a whole. Prince George's schools in recent years have laid the foundations for academic improvement. But just as building a new campus for Bladensburg High does not guarantee success, installing a new curriculum and buying new textbooks countywide won't ensure that the school system will raise its performance to the level that its increasingly affluent, urban-suburban population expects.
School officials have vowed to stay focused on teaching and learning even though the system faces some distractions. Tops among them is finding a replacement for schools chief Andre J. Hornsby, who resigned in late May amid an ethics controversy. His interim replacement, 30-year system veteran Howard A. Burnett, is postponing retirement while the school board conducts a nationwide search.
Hornsby received $250,000 a year to lead Maryland's second-largest school system. His successor may demand more as a condition of taking a job that has a recent history of instability in a politically fractious county.
Next year, school politics will intensify, as candidates emerge for the first county school board elections since the state abolished an elected board in 2002 that was viewed as dysfunctional and unproductive. The current nine-member board was appointed that year by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and then-County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D). Under law, the board is scheduled to be replaced by members chosen by countywide voting in November 2006. State lawmakers, however, might tinker with the election rules in their next session.
Despite those uncertainties, Burnett said he is confident the schools chief search will yield top-flight candidates. The county's marks on Maryland's standardized tests, he noted, have increased two years in a row.
"I believe this is a system absolutely on the rise," he said, "and the competitive salary structure and the opportunity to come here to a school system that has a positive focus will invite some candidates to put their names in the hat."
Of his own interim leadership, Burnett said: "There's renewed energy. I've got complete support from everyone to give 150-plus percent for what they're doing."
Burnett and the school board are seeking to shore up a financial house that was in some disorder during the last school year. A fiscal 2004 audit was several months late. It found numerous weaknesses in internal controls in such operations as payroll, school-activity funds and accounts receivable. But the audit certified the school system's books overall, to the relief of school officials, who were facing a potential $40 million penalty from the state for failing to meet the auditing deadline. A key financial test early in this school year will be whether the fiscal 2005 audit is done by Sept. 30.
Among management personnel, the system has less turnover this school year than in the previous two, officials said. About 30 principals have been confirmed by the school board in new positions, several of them given permanent appointments after holding their jobs as acting principals. Four of five regional assistant superintendents are holdovers from the previous school year; the fifth, Janice Briscoe, was promoted from a deputy slot.
Although Burnett pledges academic continuity, students, parents and teachers are likely to notice some new initiatives. More pre-kindergarten classes are being offered. The system also is planning to hire more recess monitors to relieve some teachers of campus patrol duties. That will, in turn, free up time for lesson planning and other academic work during recess or lunch.
Twelve schools are adopting new uniform policies, seeking to help students by cutting wardrobe costs and easing anxieties over what to wear. Voluntary uniforms are encouraged at Bladensburg and William W. Hall elementary schools. Mandatory uniforms are the rule at Forest Heights, Lamont, Laurel, Princeton, Ridgecrest, Templeton and Woodridge elementary schools, as well as at Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle, Suitland High and Charles H. Flowers High.
For example, boys' uniforms at Flowers, according to a school Web site, include charcoal-gray slacks, white short-sleeved or long-sleeved shirts with the school's logo and hunter green blazers.
Bus routes are changing for many students after a major overhaul of school boundaries last spring to end the vestiges of cross-county busing established during the era of court-ordered desegregation. Such long-distance busing for racial integration was deemed unnecessary after the county's school population became predominantly black.
Today, about 77 percent of enrolled students are black, 12 percent are Hispanic, 7 percent are non-Hispanic white and 3 percent are of Asian descent.
The new bus routes will serve new schools in Capitol Heights (William W. Hall Elementary) and Bowie (Whitehall Elementary and a reconfigured Samuel Ogle Middle). The new Suitland Elementary, in the 4600 block of Homer Avenue, is in a high-crime zone and may get extra bus service to help keep kids safe.
But bus service will be scaled back for Bladensburg High. Instead of the 34-bus fleet that carried students across the Beltway and out to Bowie, just 17 will serve local neighborhoods, mostly in Bladensburg, Cheverly and Riverdale. Student leaders interviewed before classes began said that's fine with them. Senior Jibril Diallo said the bus ride to Bowie was a half-hour. He won't miss it.
Student government president Jeneba Jalloh said the temporary quarters in Bowie were "terrible -- too tight." Forty portable classrooms were squeezed onto a parking lot to accommodate 1,781 students on a campus meant to hold hundreds fewer. The new campus can handle 1,923 students and in all likelihood will not exceed capacity in its first year. "I'm excited, I know that much," Jeneba said. "Just walking the halls. Just to see Bladensburg High in Bladensburg."
Principal Madeline Blanding, in her second year at the helm, showed off the campus one morning last month. It includes a gymnasium that seats 2,200 people (more than twice the capacity of the old gym), an ample cafeteria (enabling Blanding to schedule fewer and shorter lunch periods), a football field, a soccer field, three rooftop tennis courts, an auditorium and even a greenhouse. There were wide, color-coded hallways (burgundy for the first floor, beige for the second, and so on). There were well-lit, fully wired classrooms. Total square footage: 304,000.
Blanding said it was her eighth high school campus in a career spanning two decades in Charles and Prince George's counties. "Awesome," she called it. "The size of it is awesome. The design is awesome. The capability, what we can do with it, is awesome."
A new biomedical program headlines the academic offerings at the school. Blanding, like principals in the elementary and middle schools that feed Bladensburg, also can count on extra help from the University of Maryland's College of Education.
In recent years, professors from the nearby university have given the Bladensburg cluster schools free professional development courses, on site, and other assistance aimed at closing the minority achievement gap. In 2004, the high school was placed on a state watch list and rated as needing improvement.
The old high school campus, opened in 1951, lasted 50 years before it was torn down. Custodian Barton Griffith worked there from 1967 until it closed in 2001. The other day, he was loading boxes of textbooks onto pallets and moving furniture around the new building.
"How does it compare to the old one?" he chuckled. "It's about time we got a new one."