Monday, August 23, 2004

Prince George’s County schools opened yesterday to about 137,000 students, more than 10,000 of whom attended class in temporary trailers.

Schools Chief Executive Officer Andre J. Hornsby, who toured six schools yesterday, said it will take several years to make improvements, including building new schools or expanding others and implementing changes to academics aimed at boosting test scores.

“We are going to have a great school system,” said Mr. Hornsby, who took over the troubled system in June 2003. “I knew we had a bigger problem than I was told we had. This is not going to happen overnight, but I guarantee you we’re going to fix it.”

The new school year got off to an almost unprecedented start as school buses began their routes on time, picked up their students and arrived at school on time.

“There were no phone calls of complaints,” said Beatrice Tignor, school board chairman. “That’s unheard of…. It’s great. I predict nothing but a school session of improved test scores, competent principals and teachers.”

The school system has 850 new teachers, dozens of new principals and vice principals, and a new elementary school in Bladensburg, Port Towns Elementary School.

Mr. Hornsby, who began his tour at Port Towns on 58th Avenue early yesterday morning, said he wants to continue his focus on improving instruction and building on an increase in test scores.

To that end, first- through 10th-graders will get a new reading series, and a new math program has been put in place from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

“We had significant gains last year,” Mr. Hornsby said. “I’m looking for the reading program to really take hold this year, … and the mathematics.”

Mr. Hornsby, who had been superintendent for two years in Yonkers, N.Y., was selected last year to rebuild Prince George’s County schools, where academic achievement was sinking below national averages, school buses were late or didn’t pick up students, and trailers had to be trucked onto school campuses to make room for the growing student population.

Mr. Hornsby’s predecessor, Iris T. Metts, had numerous run-ins with the elected Board of Education. The General Assembly replaced the board with a nine-member appointed panel in 2002. The legislation calls for the resumption of the elected school board in 2006.

Mrs. Metts in February 2003 decided against another term as CEO, leaving behind a faculty and staff with low morale.

Yesterday, Mr. Hornsby said enough teachers have been hired to reduce the number of students per class in the 189 elementary, middle and high schools. Also, a sufficient number of bus drivers and alternates are available, he said.

Overcrowding continues to be a major problem, he said, and plans are being made to build additions at the affected schools.

One of those schools is DuVal High School in Lanham, where Mr. Hornsby visited with teachers and administrators and had lunch with students yesterday.

Mr. Hornsby said he favors building additions on schools instead of putting up new buildings in areas where population growth is uncertain. It takes 3 to five years to build a new high school, but it takes a couple of years to build an addition, he said.

New DuVal Principal Thomas Anderson said eight modular classrooms are necessary to accommodate the overcrowding of 1,400 students. Nearly 400 more students will be enrolled by the time that adequate additions are constructed, he said.

School Board member John R. Bailer, who joined Mr. Hornsby on the tour, said he was impressed by the instruction at a classroom at John Hanson French Immersion and Montessori school in Oxon Hill.

“They’re only a couple hours into the school year, and they are already into academics,” Mr. Bailer said.

Schools in Frederick County also began yesterday for 39,500 students. Classes begin next week elsewhere in Maryland and after Labor Day in most of Virginia.

The last day of school for Prince George’s County students is scheduled for June 3.

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