A plan to open two new high school programs for immigrants and English-language learners in Prince George’s County has created a rift between members of the African American and Hispanic communities, with opponents of the proposal questioning the school district’s decision to use its limited resources to benefit one group of students over the other.
The county’s chapter of the NAACP has mounted strong opposition to schools chief Kevin M. Maxwell’s plan to open two schools next year for 800 English-language learners who are struggling academically.
The debate surrounding the new schools is new evidence of rising tensions between the Maryland county’s African Americans, who make up 65 percent of the Prince George’s population, and Hispanics, who make up almost 15 percent of the county’s population and 26 percent of the school population. The Hispanic population is the fastest-growing minority group in the county.
“This whole thing is designed to change the school system from what we know today,” said Bob Ross, president of the county’s NAACP chapter. “They are talking about the needs of the newcomers and putting them ahead of the needs of those who are already here.”
Del. Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s) said Ross’s words are “very dangerous” and are creating division at a time when African Americans and Hispanics need to work together.
“Our issues are the same,” she said. “We are all people of color.”
The Prince George’s school system entered into an agreement with the International Network for Public Schools and CASA of Maryland earlier this year to open one school in the Langley Park area and another as a school-within-a-school program at Largo High School.
Carnegie Corporation of New York has provided a $3 million grant to start the programs, which would become the 19th of their kind in the nation and the first in Prince George’s County. Maxwell has proposed $14 million in the 2016 fiscal year budget to support them. Similar schools are operating in the District and in Alexandria.
Ross has questioned whether the schools pass constitutional muster, arguing that they might violate Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that found separate public schools for black and white students violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. NAACP officials have raised questions about the process to open the schools and what they say was a the lack of community input.
Max Pugh, a spokesman for the school system, said representatives for the administration met with community members about selecting Largo as a site for one of the schools.
“While we always strive to communicate well with those involved, there is sometimes room for improvement,” he said. The school district is planning to hold focus groups as the process moves forward.
Odis Johnson Jr., chairman of the African American Studies Department of the University of Maryland, said that the schools for English-language learners will help the school district address the county’s achievement gap: 63 percent of ELL students graduated on time, and 74 percent of all students graduated in four years in 2013.
“Not moving forward with the creation of these ELL schools in Prince George’s County would not only be a failure to take appropriate action, but it also would be inconsistent with the spirit of Brown,” Johnson said in a statement.
Barbara Dezmon, the education chairwoman for the state NAACP, said the state organization has not taken a position on the schools but is assisting the local chapter in gathering additional information. She said the issue is not about race but equity. She is concerned that the discussion will turn into “a political fireball.”
“This is not one minority confronting a minority group,” Dezmon said. “We are acting for the good of all students.”
She said it was disturbing to learn that the community was not aware of the plan to locate the school-within-a-school in their community. “People should not feel marginalized or disenfranchised,” she said.
The NAACP is asking for data regarding the schools, including the academic benefits and the social and psychological ramifications.
School system and Hispanic leaders said the International schools have been successful elsewhere, and they were surprised by Ross’s stance given there was no opposition from the NAACP when similar schools opened in New York and California. They said the schools are designed to help English-language learners of all backgrounds, including African, Asian and European. Advocates say the schools will provide programming that will meet the needs of students who are not being adequately served in the system.
English-language learner students, parents and elected officials have shared testimony with the board about struggling to comprehend in a traditional school and the feelings of isolation.
“This is a group of students who have special needs,” said County Council member Deni Taveras (D-Hyattsville). The graduation rate among ELL is “an egregious oversight that we need to address,” she said.
But Pat Fletcher, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the school board this year, said it was “misleading” to call the schools “international,” when it is “primarily for Hispanic students.” She said it is inappropriate for a school to be designed for English-language learners while many African American students graduate from county schools with “little to no mastery of the English language.”
“This is politically motivated to appease a voting population,” she recently told the school board. “Stop being a pawn in pitting one ethnic group against another.”
Many blamed the divisiveness on the way the proposal was originally presented, arguing that the process lacked transparency and was not offered as part of a broader plan to improve academic achievement systemwide.
“If this had been presented as part of a larger plan of how we are addressing the academic needs of all of our population, then that would make more sense,” said Peggy Higgins, a former school board member. But she worries that what has happened “locks in on a certain position and certain solution for a smaller group and does not address the larger needs and goals for everybody.”
Largo High School PTA president Valerie White, who testified during a board meeting that she is opposed to the school-within-a-school concept at Largo, said the Largo community has tried for years to get program enhancements at its high school, where 94 percent of the students are African American. Those efforts have been unsuccessful.
White said she worried about the disparity that will probably exist in the two schools at Largo. She described classes in the current school containing more than 30 students, while the new school would probably have about 15 students.