- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

CITIZEN JOURNALISM:

Prince George’s County public school students are accustomed to changes. They’ve had five superintendents in about as many years, and when school begins for the 2009-2010 school year, they’ll see plenty of new faces.

That’s because the county Board of Education on April 21 approved a plan to redefine school boundaries, forcing thousands of children to transfer to new campuses. The changes are said to be the most sweeping since the historic end of school busing to achieve desegregation in the late 1990s.

The move, which was passed in an 8-to-1 vote, answers the call from parents and community members who wanted access to more programs for their children, said Verjeana M. Jacobs, school board chairman.

“This plan offers more program choices to historically underserved communities, creates four kindergarten through grade 8 schools, increases the number of students attending schools in their neighborhoods, reduces by half the number of empty seats in county public schools and takes 21 temporary classrooms out of use,” Mrs. Jacobs said.

Before the boundary changes, the school system had 10,537 empty seats, according to a statement from the school system.

The school board approval comes after months of public hearings, which produced some angry outbursts from parents who complained about transportation issues. Those problems are not new to the county, which in recent years has dealt with school bus driver shortages.

The board heard from 2,500 parents, students and community members via the meetings, e-mails, online surveys and telephone calls in the past several months.

“We must show that we are making proper use of our current buildings in order to grow,” said school board Vice Chairman Ron Watson.

But not everyone is happy. Critics say the boundary changes have a greater impact on students who reside inside the Beltway in less affluent areas.

One education activist, who did not want to be identified, called the boundary changes a disaster in the making.

“You are taking kids from extremely different backgrounds and mixing them together with no regards of the psychological impact it will have on these children and their parents,” said the activist, who lives outside the Beltway.

While some of the details still need to be worked out, one thing is certain: The plan, devised under former Superintendent John Deasey’s direction, is moving forward.

Board member Linda Thornton Thomas, who represents a portion of southern Prince George’s County, where many of the changes are taking place, was the lone vote against the plan. Ms. Thomas argued for more time to hear public input.

Ray Lacy, PTA president at Henry G. Ferguson Elementary in Accokeek, is trying to keep an open mind. He has two daughters facing the boundary changes.

Under a plan approved by the school board in March, Ferguson will merge with Eugene Burroughs Middle School, which is right next door, by 2015. Both schools will be connected by a walkway and will share a principal.

Ferguson has 550 students, but was built in 1963 to handle 415.

Burroughs was built in 1966 with a capacity for 924 students. It now holds 728.

“This means the principal will have to run back and forth from one school to the other,” Mr. Lacy said. “I know it sounds kind of funny, but I think it will work as long as there is a strong leadership.”

John White, the school system spokesman, said this is the first in three phases to take a look at school enrollment and performance.

The new school boundary maps are being posted at the pertinent schools. Letters were sent last week to families affected by the zone changes.

Asked whether there was any redress for parents about the changes, Mr. White said they could contest to the county school board at 301/952-6115 or the state Board of Education at 410/767-0100.

c Renee Tinsley is a freelance writer in Prince George’s County.

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