- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

While nervous kindergartners met new classmates, school and elected officials toured schools as dozens of angry parents pre-empted a smooth opening day for Prince George's County public schools because the school administration discontinued busing for their children.
About 30 parents protested at Robert R. Gray Elementary School because their children would be required to walk more than a mile to get there, sometimes crossing busy intersections and drug-infested or wooded areas. Parents of students attending Forest Heights, Flintstone and Glassmanor elementary schools were concerned about their children having to cross Indian Head Highway with its fast-moving traffic. Parents at other schools complained that buses were late or absent.
"We love that we have a new community school," said Twana Deal, whose two children attend Robert R. Gray Elementary School. "Our concern is the safety of our children when they walk in areas that are high-crime and that lack sidewalks."
Her daughter, Erica, 11, said she was "a little" nervous to walk to school this morning with her 5-year-old brother because they have to cross busy Addison and Sheriff roads.
This month, the county school system fully implemented a new computerized bus-routing system and tightened up on decades-old regulations requiring elementary students to live more than a mile and a half away to ride the bus. Middle and high school students must live two miles away to be bused.
School officials yesterday promised to investigate each case and, if necessary, restore busing, just as they did last September when the issue first arose.
"The first day is going to have some glitches," said schools Superintendent Iris T. Metts. "We will look into the problem and work with parents until we settle this."
Mrs. Metts said crossing guards, police and school security officers were stationed outside the four schools to help alleviate safety concerns. She also said the price tag for picking up every child would equal about $15 million annually, an expense the county can't afford.
Parents also were concerned that Gray Elementary was not ready to open. Construction crews worked around the outside of the building, while inside, workers raced to complete the school's cafeteria by next week so that children won't have to continue to eat boxed lunches of tuna fish sandwiches, which one child yesterday labeled "yucky."
Other parents yesterday said they didn't mind that the new school was incomplete. They were thrilled with the school, which can hold 790 students and is the area's first, and the county's largest, neighborhood school.
"I feel blessed to have this school in the area," said Crystal Garris, whose son Ivan, 9, used to be bused 25 minutes away to Paint Branch Elementary School. "Now if he needs me, I can get to him quickly."
Fourth-grader Ivan said he likes his new school.
"It's real big," he said. "I can't wait to use the new playground."
Prentice A. Christian, the new principal of Gray Elementary, said he was enjoying the hectic but exciting first day. He spent the day touring classes, greeting students and appeasing parents.
"The transition is exciting, if not simple," said the veteran principal, who transferred from Fairfax schools. "I was awake at 3 a.m. this morning because I was so excited."
The county initially planned to open two schools this year, but funds became scarce and leaders decided to focus entirely on Gray. The other school, Rosaryville Elementary, is expected to open in early 2002.
At Bladensburg High School, now housed in the Bel Air Annex in Bowie, students said they were happy with their new home for the next three years. The old school is being rebuilt.
"I think it is a lot better than where we were," said Latoya White, 17. "It seems a bit crowded, but it's working out. And we have air conditioning."
Last year, plans for the temporary housing of Bladensburg High School sparked controversy in Bowie among some parents who wanted the Bel Air Annex to be used for overflowing Bowie schools. Students said yesterday they initially had some misgivings over the transfer, but feel good about the move.
Principal Dave Stofa and staff worked around the clock for weeks to ensure that outcome for more than 1,200 students.
"We had to retrofit the building," he said. "First days are always tough. But things worked out just fine."


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