When Sharon “Grandma” Sims heard Forestville High School might close, she rallied her troops.
A longtime advocate of the high school — which from 2002 to 2013 was the state’s first publicly funded military academy — Sims delivered marching orders via text and email, urging Forestville’s platoon of committed graduates and parents to complain to Prince George’s County school officials.
The head of the county school board said Forestville could be closed at the end of this school year as the county grapples with underperforming schools, declining enrollment and significant renovation needs. A consultant’s report said the county should close 29 of its 198 schools by 2035. A subsequent master plan written by the school system said officials should consider closing up to eight schools by fall 2018.
Forestville has fewer than 800 students, and keeping it open would be an inefficient use of resources, county officials said. They also said it could jeopardize state funding for nearby Suitland High School, which is slated for major renovations. But closure would be a blow to the proud inner-Beltway neighborhood that surrounds the high school.
“This is more than just a school, it’s a family,” 2010 graduate Paul Cruz said during a meeting last week in the school cafeteria. About 50 parents, graduates and students attended to denounce the possible closure, which schools chief Kevin Maxwell revealed at a series of community meetings last month.
Maxwell said the 2015 report from the consulting firm Brailsford & Dunlavey found that about half of Prince George’s schools are more than 40 years old and in dire need of major updates to critical systems, such as plumbing, heating and air conditioning.
With state funding for schools shrinking, the county said it does not have the money to meet every need and has to make choices. Schools in the northern corner of the county — Hyattsville, Laurel and Beltsville — are overcrowded, while many inner-Beltway and southern-area schools are underused, with low enrollment.
The firm recommended an $8.5 billion renovation plan for 132 school buildings and said closing or consolidating 29 schools during the next 20 years would save an estimated $616 million. Prince George’s will “have many difficult decisions to make, and much is unknown about public willingness to embrace such an aggressive course of action,” the report said.
The school system’s Department of Capital Programs put together a master plan, which recommended closing one of three high schools in the near future — Forestville, Friendly or Frederick Douglass — along with seven other schools: Capitol Heights Elementary, Clinton Grove Elementary, Concord Elementary, Mattaponi Elementary, Seat Pleasant Elementary, Skyline Elementary and Tanglewood Regional Special Education School.
“Given the magnitude of the unfunded capital improvement needs in the district, maximizing state participation is extremely important,” school officials said in a statement. “Efficient utilization of our existing schools is a factor that the state looks at to determine when and where to fund school construction.”
School system spokeswoman Sherrie Johnson said officials are focusing on closing Forestville because of their desire to secure state school construction dollars for other buildings. The school system’s master plan specifically mentions 60-year-old Suitland, which is two miles away and houses a performing arts program and an international baccalaureate program.
Forestville students could be divided between Potomac and Suitland high schools, according to the master plan. Maxwell is seeking public comment and is expected to present his proposal to board members Thursday and make a final decision next month.
“There is nothing set in stone,” Johnson said. But “we feel that the cost of inaction is great.”
Shuttering Forestville would be the second blow to the community, after county education officials in 2013 ended an experiment that had turned the long-troubled secondary school into a military academy. Students from the neighborhood and across the county wore military-style uniforms and participated in drills and JROTC classes.
While many parents seemed to love the discipline the school instilled in their children, the changes did not necessarily translate into higher test scores or graduation rates.
The community introduced after-school mentoring and tutoring, Sims said. Neighborhood residents, school families and graduates took pride in Forestville’s award-winning drill teams, championship athletic teams and two Gates Millennium scholars.
But Prince George’s school officials decided to convert the academy back into a typical high school in 2013, giving students the choice between classic instruction and enrolling in specialty “career academy” programs in military sciences and homeland security.
Johnson, the schools spokeswoman, said neighborhood students overwhelmingly chose to participate in the traditional high school program.
“The structure changed. Enrollment went down. Our school spirit changed,” said Andy Michel, who graduated in 2013 and earned a full scholarship to Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C. “I don’t think they ever gave Forestville a chance.”
At the meeting last week, other graduates told their stories to state Sen. Ulysses Currie and Dels. Darryl Barnes and Dereck E. Davis, all Prince George’s County Democrats. Warren Christopher, a candidate in the Democratic primary to succeed Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.), was there, too.
“This school changed my life,” said 2013 graduate Emane Boyd, adding that she had been getting into “a lot of trouble” before enrolling there.
Kendric Hilliard, 23, said the academy protected him and his classmates. “I only lost one friend in my 23 years,” said Hilliard, who is now a sergeant in the Army. “I have no RIP shirts in my closet — thanks to Forestville.”
Sims, who is acting president of the parent-teacher association, said Forestville has seen more behavior problems since the military academy has closed. In early 2015, a teacher was assaulted by a student.
About 1,200 people have signed her Change.org petition calling for Forestville to once again become a full military academy. Sims said she would personally take responsibility for recruiting and increasing enrollment if that happened.
“If we are given the opportunity, I stake my life . . . that I will bring them in,” Sims said. “When you come to our house, you will find the finest of the finest.”
Davis, who is running for Congress, said he plans to communicate the community’s concerns to Maxwell. “Schools are part of the fabric of any community,” he said. “There’s no school you can close that won’t cause some kind of angst.”
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly attributed information to school system spokeswoman Sherrie Johnson. While Johnson did say that school officials are focused on closing Forestville to increase their chances of securing state construction dollars for other schools, she did not specifically mention Suitland High School. The school system’s master plan identifies Suitland as a school awaiting state funding for renovation that could be jeopardized if Forestville, located two miles away, stays open.