Ordinarily, new school openings are occasions for parents to cheer and school board members to take a bow. In Prince George's County, however, mixed emotions greeted the arrival this year of Suitland Elementary, William W. Hall Elementary in Capitol Heights and the rebuilt Bladensburg High.
No one claims that the campuses are substandard. On the contrary, they are substantial upgrades from the aging school facilities that previously served these communities inside the Beltway.
But parents converged on the school board last week in Upper Marlboro to demand more bus service to ensure that children arrive safely at Suitland and Hall Elementary schools.
Suitland, in particular, poses a thorny problem. School officials say they have a commitment from the county police for extra officers to patrol the high-crime zone that surrounds the school on Homer Avenue.
Getting bus service to kids inside the 1.5-mile walking radius can be both costly to the system and difficult for drivers on narrow, hard-to-navigate streets. What's more, extra busing for some children for one or two schools could raise an equity issue for children elsewhere in the 199-school system who have to walk to school or be driven by parents or others.
Yet parent after parent told the board that children should not be forced to walk past drug dealers and others loitering in a three-block area around the school, an area that has had six homicides this year. Others have been killed on streets slightly farther away. Some board members nodded in sympathy to the parents' demands.
As for Bladensburg, the shining new five-story campus there reminds many officials of an urgent need to rebuild other schools. "I'm not against new schools," board member Judy Mickens-Murray (Upper Marlboro) said at a meeting Aug. 23, one day after classes began. "I love new schools. But we need to figure out how to do something for Oxon Hill High School right now. You can go over there and walk it yourself. I was there yesterday. It's appalling."
Others voiced concern about the deteriorating condition of Fairmont Heights High and Central High, both in Capitol Heights, as well as High Point High in Beltsville. A $92 million high school is due to open in Upper Marlboro in August 2006 with a large gymnasium that has drawn controversy. A $15 million renovation and expansion of DuVal High in Lanham is expected to be done by January 2007, some months behind previous schedule.
Robert Kuntz, chief of planning and architectural services for the school system, told the board that school officials use maintenance data, a consultant's report and other information to rank potential projects. But, he added, politics -- especially the interaction of the school system with the county government -- also play a role.
Board member Dean Sirjue (Bowie) called for "an objective process" for determining new projects. Board member Abby L.W. Crowley (Greenbelt) said she was disturbed by the notion of a politically driven construction budget. "It shouldn't be who went there [to a school] one morning or what school is in which council member's district," she said.
Schools Are All Cool
As the new school year opened, every school had at least minimal air conditioning for the first time. A $10 million "cool schools" project pushed by County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) added window air-conditioning to classrooms and other rooms in 51 schools. At many older campuses, electrical capacity was increased to handle the power needs.
Rising fuel costs are expected to hit the schools' bus fleet hard this year. The system's 1,389 buses are all equipped with new GPS devices to help pinpoint their location if they are running late. As of last week, buses were carrying 91,873 students daily. That's a drop from last school year's total of about 95,000 riders, due in part to redrawn school boundaries that enabled more students to attend neighborhood schools.
For Falling HSA Scores, 'Now It Counts'
The state jolted county high schools last week with the announcement of the latest High School Assessment scores. Just 32.9 percent of county students passed the biology test this year, down from 35.8 percent in 2004. The algebra test passing rate fell from 36.8 percent to 30.6 percent, and the government test passing rate fell from 48.8 percent to 30.8 percent (although the testing pool for that exam was small, adding a caveat to the results).
But now the tests will begin to have high stakes. For the first time, incoming ninth-graders will be required to pass these end-of-course examinations to receive a diploma.
Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt had the county's best scores, with sizeable majorities passing the tests. Still, many students failed. Principal Sylvester Conyers said the school has a new slogan: "Now it counts. Do we have the will?" Referring to those who are failing the tests, Conyers said: "If these students aren't successful, you could have very small graduations."