Prince George’s County education leaders have repeatedly said over the past several months that a priority for the newly structured school system should be drawing middle-income families to county schools. But school and county government officials have not offered details about how they plan to accomplish that goal — and it will not be easy, given limited resources and the trending demographics of the 123,000 students in county public schools.
School officials need to show more urgency. Research shows a high correlation between family income and achievement. Middle-income families are more effective at getting schools to be responsive to children’s needs, education experts say, and all children in a classroom benefit when the expectation for many is that they will attend college.
This is not about income or class warfare. And it is not based on the premise that low-income students cannot learn. It is dealing with the reality of Prince George’s County public schools: For the system to fulfill its promise, it must stem the tide of middle-class flight.
To get answers about where the school system is headed, I looked to County Executive Rushern Baker, who has staked his reelection in 2014 on what ended up as a semi-takeover of public schools. Since the first week of June, the man who told voters to judge him on what happens with schools has been unavailable to provide answers — at least for this column.
Indeed, beyond better public relations for existing successful school programs, leadership has not offered residents details about how to stop the steep decline in the number of middle-income students enrolled in public schools. For now, residents have to rely on public statements by the likes of Verjeana M. Jacobs, a Board of Education member, and Christian Rhodes, Baker’s education liaison.
Jacobs and Rhodes said at a recent town hall meeting on education in Prince George’s that getting and keeping middle-income families in public schools should be the priority.
Some parents with children in county public schools left that meeting dumbfounded about the few specifics they had heard about their interests as middle-income families.
Putting social workers in schools?
Integrating schools into the county’s Transforming Neighborhoods program?
“I did not hear anything that spoke to my concerns,” said one parent who lives in Bowie and has a son at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. What she and other parents who huddled after the meeting spoke about was simple, in their minds. County schools have successful, high-demand programs — some with waiting lists of more than 1,000 students — as do some of the few charter schools, like Imagine Foundation at Leeland Public Charter School in Upper Marlboro. The Chesapeake Math and IT Academy in Laurel had 400 applicants for 50 openings for the school year that just ended.
In creative and peforming arts programs for grades K-5, there were 2,108 applications for 132 open slots. In the Montessori programs, there were 1,453 applicants for 227 open slots. For Talented and Gifted programs for grades 2-8, there were 1,836 applicants for 607 slots.
Why not expand or replicate them?
“I asked that question myself,” said Howard Stone, a former appointed vice chair of the county Board of Education. “I found out that it costs money, lots of money that we do not have because of property tax limits. And it is not simple to do. It’s complicated.”
Some education experts say expanding or replicating existing successful programs would ignore the reality of what the county’s school system is. Take a look at the numbers:
Ten years ago, in the 2003-04 school year, 137,285 students attended public schools in Prince George’s. Of those, 50.8 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, according to the Maryland Report Card. In 2012, enrollment had dropped to 123,833. And 66.3 percent of those students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
In 2000, the poverty rate in Prince George’s County was about 4 percent. Now, it is more than 8 percent.
“Those high property rates and high rents in D.C. have caused people to look for a place with affordable housing. That place is Prince George’s County,” says Odis D. Johnson Jr., a member of the African American studies department at the University of Maryland in College Park. “As a result, the school system has more and more students who have higher needs. You can replicate successful programs, but ultimately that will not meet the needs of most students enrolled.”
Johnson, who has produced research on several issues related to learning and low-income students and the effects of neighborhood influence on achievement, says that in the short term, Baker’s call to overhaul school system could exacerbate middle-income families’ flight from county schools.
“It’s a catch-22,” Johnson says. “You don’t want to create the air of crisis by saying you have to take over the school system. But doing so does just that. And in the short term, that adds to the middle-income flight.”
Keith Harriston lives in Prince George’s County and has two children in county public schools. He teaches journalism at Howard University, where he edits hunewsservice.com