Citizens, officials address county school concerns
Discuss District 9 deficiencies, needed improvements
Looking for direction and input on how to improve school use and facilities in the southern end of the county, Board of Education Member Sonya Williams hosted a District 9 Schools Strategic Planning Work Session Saturday at the Surratts-Clinton Branch Library in Clinton.
More than 30 residents, school system staff and experts from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission attended the event, which included Prince George’s County Planning Department’s Countywide Planning Division Chief Derick Berlage, school system Chief Operating Officer W. Wesley Watts Jr. and Capital Improvements Program Planner II Elizabeth Chaisson.
Board of Education Member K. Alexander Wallace and County Councilman Mel Franklin (D) also made an appearance.
“About 10 years ago, we had 137,000 students in our school system. Today, we have about 127,000 so to put that in perspective, that’s like District 9 is disappearing,” said Williams in her introductory remarks. “Imagine that being dispersed throughout the county. We have issues because we’re not efficiently using our buildings — that’s the administration’s perspective. … So at the end of the day, we want to hear from you about your strategies for helping us solve that problem because the state and the county will not continue to give us capital dollars [if we are not going to be] as efficient as we can be.”
During the work session, residents were split into three different groups — east, central and west — based on what area they live in within the district. Each group was provided with information packets and a list of guiding questions which asked for their input on school boundaries and consolidations, as well as capital asset management.
Williams advised the groups to consider timing, cost implications, the community impact regarding those boundaries and consolidations, knowns versus unknowns and their overall desired outcome.
“We, as the [education] board, are about to go through the approval for the Capital Improvement Program starting with 2017. In the spring, we’ll start talking about 2018,” Williams said. “Having those things in mind will help you really craft your ideas so that we can get good thoughts from this session.”
After about an hour of collaborating and brainstorming, the groups presented their recommendations to Williams and the team of experts.
First to present from the central group was Wanda Sledd of Clinton. Sledd spoke about the need for a business, computer or trade academy in all schools; training staff to keep up with modern technologies; updated bathrooms and locker rooms with more private stalls and showers; better security cam- eras; improved facility lighting; more user-friendly books and whiteboards in the classroom; and smaller class sizes.
“I think they touched on a number of concerns,” Williams said. “Some of those are capital maintenance concerns. Some of those are instructional in the classroom. Some of them are school-based budget issues. So as we move beyond this step here … we can have a better conversation … about how we can fit it into business.”
Next to present for the east group was C. Sylvia Proctor of Brandywine.
“One of the concerns that emerged in our group was school closures but more importantly was the issue around boundaries,” Proctor said. “We thought that to prevent closures, we should always connect programs to the highest-performing schools. … That in turn, we hope, would also decrease the size of classes.”
Proctor said there are too many overcrowded schools within the district while other schools are being underutilized. Shifting students to those underutilized schools would be a better option, she said.
“We also have concerns about buildings. We think renovations to the schools is important,” Proctor said. “If all else fails and some of these high-performing schools had to close — whether elementary, middle school or high school — one of the concerns that we have is that there be some type of mechanism in place to ensure that successful programs are continued at the new schools.”
In terms of funding education, Proctor suggested that the board of education consider forming a nonprofit community foundation to help board members generate additional funds for the school system, at least in District 9, she said.
“When we talk about connecting those dots and continuing the programs, that is so important,” Williams said.
“Part of the problem that we’re dealing with on our side of the county is that there are three primary schools — Potomac Landing [Elementary], Fort Washington Forest [Elementary] and Accokeek [Academy],” said Michael Scott of Fort Washington, who presented for the west group. “Fort Washington Forest is underutilized and Potomac Landing is right at about max capacity.”
At Accokeek Academy, Scott said the ratio of kids to classroom size is too great in number.
“It’s not optimal for the academy even though they just did the renovation,” he said. “The other problem that we have is that we also have kids from within District 9, they’re automatically fed over to Accokeek Academy just because it’s a TAG [talented and gifted] center. So one of the things we talked about last year and brought up this year was let’s understand what the TAG looks like and let’s understand how the TAG lottery apply to kids in District 9, kids within the county and is there a way … we can make one of these other elementary or middle schools a TAG center so that we can get rid of the lottery that’s overburdening Accokeek Academy.”
“When you’re talking about enrollment in dollars, then the board needs to do better in promoting those positive stories and promoting Prince George’s County Public Schools as a good school system so that people who can afford to go to private school will want to come to our public schools,” said Karen Graham, who is also a Fort Washington resident. “The other thing is the National Harbor population — that’s just a little additive in the fact that there is housing back there. Where are those kids going to go? They’re going to go to Oxon Hill Middle or they’re going to go to private school. They’re going to go somewhere. It’s going to all impact Potomac Landing, Accokeek and Fort Washington Forest at some point.”
As a member of the Maryland 21st Century School Facilities Commission, Franklin said the important work of strategically planning as it relates to the county’s facilities — including improving the look and resources of public schools — needs to be continued.
“We talk a lot about choose public and trying to get people into public schools [but] I can’t get folks in the door to even investigate because of the look of a lot of our schools. So it’s a critical issue,” Franklin said. “Some other jurisdictions have some creative ideas and we’re investigating all of those. The 21st Century School Facilities Commission is going to make recommendations to the state legislature by the end of the year for how to address better funding school facilities for the long-term for our capital needs.”
“We have 210 schools. If you change a boundary, you’re going to upset people on this side and that side so there’s a lot of decisions that we have to make,” Watts said as the work session concluded. The input that we get from parents are going to help us make those decisions. We have to work together to figure out these solutions.”
Prince George’s County Board of Education Member Sonya Williams listens as County Councilman Mel Franklin speaks to a group of residents, school system staff and county agency officials during a District 9 Schools Strategic Planning Work Session she...