The Washington Post
In Pr. George’s, pandemic derailed schools chief ’s goals for academics
‘Daughter of county’ who took reins after scandals is leaving this year
When Monica Goldson was appointed permanently as CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools in 2019, the school system was still recovering from several scandals under the previous district chief. She was widely supported by the community for her deep county ties and reputation as a collaborator, and she had big plans.
During her first school year as permanent chief, the pandemic hit, derailing some of her goals of improving academic performance for the district’s most struggling students. After guiding the system through online learning, reacclimating students to classrooms and implementing recovery programs, Goldson announced her retirement in January and is scheduled to step down at the end of the school year.
Goldson is leaving a system of nearly 131,000 students that continues to struggle with academics. Recent data showed that 90 percent of the county’s students in third through eighth grades were not proficient in math; only Baltimore City students were performing worse. At the same time, the system is experiencing increases in violence among students in schools and among young people in the county.
With just five months until the new school year, a national search is planned for the system’s next leader. Expectations will be high for the new CEO as county leaders look for improvements in student performance at a time when other school systems are rebounding academically. The new leader will also need to navigate working with the county’s school board, a relationship that has been marred by years of disputes. Goldson cited those disagreements in her retirement announcement, saying the conflicts blocked progress for the school system. Some in the county have disputed her characterization, saying Goldson has played a role in those divisions.
Maryland state Sen. Alonzo T. Washington (D-prince George’s) said that a new CEO will give the school system a chance to “start anew” but that the new leader will have to quickly learn the school system and dive into rolling out the initiatives in the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future — a landmark bill that directs billions of dollars into public education.
“I am hoping that our next superintendent is a consensus builder — someone who will work on both sides of the issue and make sure that we can lead our school system in a way that is going to ultimately improve student achievement,” Washington said.
County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) tapped Goldson for the permanent post after she had served one year as interim schools chief, beginning in July 2018. She was heralded as “a daughter of Prince George’s County.” A graduate of county schools, she started her career in the district as a math teacher 32 years ago and moved up the ranks. Her two sons are also graduates of county schools.
Goldson served as deputy superintendent under former CEO Kevin Maxwell, who stepped down amid controversies over large pay raises to aides, a lost federal grant and inflated graduation rates. She also worked in the district during years of strife between school board members and school system leaders.
Doris Reed, the longtime executive director of the district’s school administrators union, said Goldson cared deeply for her employees — probably, she said, because she used to be in their ranks. Teachers and staff had been leaving in droves, and after Maxwell, Goldson inherited a system that was trying to mend its image.
Early on, she announced a $46 million salary restoration plan for employees who had been with the school system for more than 10 years. It was intended to compensate for a freeze on employee salaries from 2009 to 2012, during an economic recession. It was an action that “no superintendent that I can recall had ever done,” said Reed, who led the union for 31 years.
“I wanted to shift the focus from the issues that had become
“For the academic achievement, I think that’s always going to be a hard one because of the pandemic disruption.” Pamela Boozer-strother, Prince george’s County Board of education
flash points for media and a distraction from all of the work that our employees had done and redirect attention to the daily work of teaching and learning, and prioritizing students,” Goldson, 54, said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. Then came covid-19. Eight months into her tenure, school buildings closed because of the emerging pandemic, and classes shifted to online teaching and learning.
Prince George’s County became a coronavirus hot spot, reporting more cases than any other Maryland jurisdiction at one point. The school system stayed with online-only learning longer than any other system in the state, and when it reopened, also kept a mask mandate longer than others.
In a district in which students were already academically behind their peers statewide, online classes created even more challenges.
Prince George’s school buildings began reopening to students in April 2021, but most students didn’t return until the start of the next school year in August. Then, coronavirus cases spiked in December of that year. Goldson delayed in-person instruction for another two weeks after the winter break, citing the increase in covid-19 infections. State officials criticized that decision, and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) called it “a terrible mistake.”
Alvaro Ceron-ruiz, 17, the student member of the county’s board of education, said Goldson made the right choice. Other jurisdictions in the region were announcing they were closing individual campuses due to increasing covid cases, but Goldson’s decision, he said, prevented a surge of infections in county schools.
“Not being afraid to make tough calls is something that Dr. Goldson did well when it came to moving the school system through the pandemic,” Ceron-ruiz said.
But school board member David Murray (District 1) disagreed. The decision to keep schools closed that long should have been a public discussion hosted by the school board, he said. “To just say no one could go [to school in person] for that long of a period of time, I think clearly caused more problems than it solved,” Murray said.
Goldson acknowledged that the decisions were “unpopular for some people,” but she stands by them. She also stands by her controversial move to consolidate the district’s alternative schools despite pleas from staff and alumni to keep the campuses open for the at-risk students the schools enrolled.
In other areas, she was commended by most county residents for her work in running the system while schools were closed and for communication with parents throughout her tenure. Her administration advanced a firstof-its-kind plan that built six schools using a public-private model. Prekindergarten went from a part-time to a full-day program for some students.
“You’re talking about somebody who the majority of her tenure has been the pandemic and managing a situation that no one in our lifetime had experienced,” said Donna Christy, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, the teachers union. “She was really working without a playbook.”
‘Still in the same boat’
Goldson’s record on academic progress is tougher to measure. Across the country, test scores fell to levels not seen in decades after classes moved online.
Prince George’s has followed the national trend; its most recent assessment data from the 2021-22 school year showed many students testing below grade level in math and reading. Though results showed some slight improvements over the previous year, fewer than 25 percent were “meeting expectations” in reading and language arts across grade levels. Math scores were lower, with fewer than 10 percent of students meeting expectations. Prince George’s students also tested below most other districts on recent state assessments.
“[ W]hen test scores came out, they were abysmal,” said Janna Parker, a parent of two high school students. Parker noted there were students who have excelled in the school’s academic programs and received millions of dollars in scholarships under Goldson’s tenure, “but we also have a large subset of students that are not performing at capacity.”
Even the county’s youngest students are behind.
At the beginning of the current school year, Prince George’s reported that 31 percent of kindergartners “demonstrated readiness” on a statewide assessment, the lowest of any jurisdiction in the state. The assessment tests kindergartners on their motor skills, social foundations, mathematics and literacy during the first two months of a school year. The rating was a slight increase from the 28 percent of the previous year, but still below the statewide average of 42 percent readiness.
“For the academic achievement, I think that’s always going to be a hard one because of the pandemic disruption,” said school board member Pamela Boozer-strother (District 3), adding that comparisons are difficult because counties varied in how they handled pandemic learning.
Goldson said that her administration made math a priority this school year and that there have been some improvements, especially in the summer program. Students who participated at the elementary level had a 56 percent increase in mathematics growth and 39 percent growth in English language arts. Middle school students enrolled in the program had a 36 percent increase in mathematics growth and a 28 percent increase in reading language arts. Eighty-three percent of high school students passed the mathematics course they took, and 80 percent passed their reading language arts course.
“Had we not had the year and a half of the pandemic, I think we’d see even more academic progress,” Goldson said.
Washington, the state senator, said that Goldson put in “the hard work and dedication that is needed” as chief of the state’s secondlargest school system but that wholesale improvement is needed.
“I think we’re still in the same boat,” Washington said, pointing to test scores and an ongoing truancy problem in schools. “We have moved incrementally, and that’s always been the case under most superintendents.”