The Prince George’s County school system has experienced a slight bump in enrollment for the first time in a decade, with nearly 2,000 more students attending the county’s schools this year than last.
County leaders have trumpeted the increase as a sign that the long-struggling school system, which has lost an average of 1,000 students a year during the past 10 years, is moving in the right direction. Increased enrollment means increased funding, and, they said, the additional resources will help as the district continues to turn itself around.
But along with the increased enrollment comes a sobering statistic: About 1,300 — or 65 percent — of the new students in Prince George’s are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, a federal measure of poverty. The percentage of new students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals is slightly higher than the overall average percentage of county students coming from poor families.
The latest figures do not bode well for County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s school takeover effort because he said one of his central goals was to attract the county’s middle-class families — many of whom send their children to private schools — back to the county’s public schools.
“A lot of engaged parents live in Prince George’s County, but they don’t send their children to our public schools,” Baker said last year. “What we are going to do is talk to them and figure out why. . . . We are going to make sure they aren’t making the decision because they believe it is unsafe. A number of people do it based on the perception that they believe it is unsafe. Or based on the quality of the instruction that they think their child is going to get.”
Experts say that increasing the middle-class enrollment in Prince George’s schools could pay dividends for low-income students, who generally benefit from an environment where their peers have their eyes on college and have parents who are involved in their education. Baker (D) also hopes that improving county schools — which have made strides on testing but still languish near the bottom of Maryland rankings — will be a draw for business development and potential residents.
Christian Rhodes, Baker’s education adviser, said the county has just started to look at who is enrolled and who has left the system. He said the county plans to engage the community in a discussion about the reasons parents leave the system or do not consider enrolling their children in public school.
Board of Education Chairman Segun Eubanks said that the school system’s primary focus is to provide a “great education to all students regardless of economic background.” But Eubanks said the county is committed to developing and expanding programs to attract middle-class families.
“We have made no qualms about the fact that we want [middle-class families] to come back,” Eubanks said. “I think it’s good for the school system, and it’s good for the students.”
Enrollment last year was down 14,000 students from a decade earlier, when in the 2003-2004 school year there were 137,000 students. As enrollment dropped over the years, the percentage of students from poor families increased. In 2008, 44 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. That will be closer to 63 percent by the end of this year, estimates Joan Shorter, the system’s director of food and nutrition services.
Of the 125,000 students attending county schools as of Oct. 31, a little more than 61 percent come from poor families, Shorter said. A year earlier, the number was a little more than 59 percent.
Max Pugh, a spokesman for the school system, said that the transition to the new school administration is still in its early phases and that the recent enrollment numbers do not reflect the program offerings that new schools chief Kevin M. Maxwell has recommended.
“In the CEO’s proposed budget and in the Board of Education’s requested budget to the County Executive, we have included these programs, specifically meant to address the needs of our school system and provide more offerings to attract students to our school system,” Pugh said in an e-mail. “These include Spanish Immersion, STEM programs, Primary Years International Baccalaureate programs, increased seats in French Immersion, Montessori and Talented and Gifted programs, as well as enhancements in the arts, environmental education and college and career programs.”
Sonya Braithwaite, who lives in Bowie and pays for her two children to go to private elementary schools, said some of her friends in the past year have taken their children out of private school and enrolled them in specialty programs and public charter schools in the county. She said others have moved to Howard County, which has one of the state’s top-ranked school systems.
“We do keep a constant eye on what is going on,” Braithwaite said, adding that she is impressed with some new public school options that are being offered, including the opportunity for high school students to receive college credits. “It’s all good stuff.”
Eubanks said the school system wants middle-class parents such as Braithwaite to consider public schools as an option
“We need more of these parents to trust the system,” Eubanks said. “We think we already have some great programs in place. . . . Our goal is to tell them we have a great system.”