- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2006

Summer fun for Prince George’s County students will officially end today when public schools open their doors, while the rest of the region’s school systems continue to prepare for their own opening days.

Prince George’s County officials project 134,412 students will be enrolled when school begins, about 1,000 more than last year, said John White, spokesman for the school system.

The growing student population will be accommodated by two new schools — Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High in Upper Marlboro and Rosa L. Parks Elementary in Hyattsville.

The school system has about 10,000 teachers this year. As of last week, there were 325 open positions that are expected to be filled by opening day, Mr. White said.

Students, faculty and others in the school system will benefit from having a permanent chief executive officer to begin the year, Mr. White said. The county’s Board of Education in March voted unanimously to hire John E. Deasy, 45, to be the next school system chief.

Last year, Howard A. Burnett, chief administrator for human resources, served as interim CEO while officials searched for a replacement for Andre J. Hornsby.

Mr. Hornsby resigned in May 2005 during an FBI investigation into financial improprieties and in advance of an audit that showed he mishandled school funds, including awarding a $1 million contract to a company that employed his live-in girlfriend.

Mr. Deasy officially took charge of the system’s 205 schools in May.

“His presence provides a sense of stability early on in the school year,” Mr. White said.

Mr. Deasy came from California’s Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, which has roughly 13,000 students in 19 schools, much smaller than the 134,000-plus students in Prince George’s system.

“His priority is increasing student achievement countywide,” Mr. White said.

One strategy for improvement has been mandatory school uniforms.

Thirty-seven county schools have adopted mandatory uniforms for the 2006-07 school year, bringing the total to 131.

Four high schools in the county reported improved honor rolls, student behavior and attendance after instituting the uniform policy last year.

“It’s an option that’s obviously very popular with the parents,” Mr. White said.

In addition to the two new schools, the county has 453 temporary classrooms to handle student overflow.

In March, Montgomery County officials closed two portable classrooms at Bells Mill Elementary in Potomac, after parents and teachers complained about mold. About 70 students were removed from the trailers.

A third portable classroom at the school was also temporarily closed to make repairs, after concerns about mold and water contamination.

No such problems have been reported in Prince George’s County, Mr. White said.

Brian Edwards, Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman, said the system is ready for its Aug. 28 opening date, including all of its portable classrooms. This summer’s torrential rainstorms caused no significant damage, he said.

He also said the school system reduced its number of portable classrooms from 719 to 606.

Mr. Edwards attributed the decrease in part to the opening of five new schools this fall: Clarksburg High and Little Bennett Elementary, both in Clarksburg; Sargent Shriver Elementary and Roscoe Nix Elementary, both in Silver Spring; and Great Seneca Creek Elementary in Germantown.

About 140,000 students are projected to attend public schools in Montgomery, which has the largest school system in Maryland. About 1,000 new teachers were hired, Mr. Edwards said.

He described the increases in the number of students and teachers as minimal compared with last year.

About 81 percent of the school system’s teachers last year were considered “highly qualified” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Edwards said.

Among the requirements in the four-year-old law is that teachers in core academic areas must be highly qualified in their subjects by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

To meet the “highly qualified” standard, teachers must fulfill a list of minimum requirements, which include having a bachelor’s degree, full state certification and the ability to demonstrate content knowledge in the subjects they teach.

A handful of teacher vacancies should be filled before the school year starts, Mr. Edwards said. However, filling the roughly 1,200 positions for bus drivers hasn’t been as easy.

“It is a perpetual challenge to find enough bus drivers,” he said.

However, Mr. Edwards said the county will have enough for opening day.

In Fairfax County — the metropolitan area’s largest school district — officials face a similar shortage of bus drivers, but are less optimistic.

Despite increasing benefits and offering flexible schedules, about 100 positions are vacant for the upcoming year.

“It’s an ongoing problem we’ve had for many years,” said Paul Regnier, county schools spokesman. “But we’ll figure out a way. All students will get to school.”

Mr. Regnier said the school system is otherwise prepared for the Sept. 5 opening day with about 14,000 teachers. A few remaining vacancies should be filled before then, he said.

Fairfax County, with roughly 164,295 students enrolled this year, is the 13th-largest school system in the country and the largest in Virginia. One new school — Eagle View Elementary in Fairfax — will open this fall to provide more classroom space.

The county has about 888 trailers — about 650 to relieve overcrowding and 250 as temporary classrooms while various schools undergo construction. None has been found to have mold or water damage, Mr. Regnier said.

In the District, school begins Aug. 28 for about 60,000 students.

Superintendent Clifford B. Janey earlier this summer appointed 17 new principals, continuing his revamping of the school system. Last year, he replaced one-third of the system’s principals.

This year, there are new principals at 11 elementary schools, four middle and junior high schools, one education center and one special-education center.

“These new principals bring a level of expertise, energy and professionalism that will allow them to help their teachers get the best out of our students,” he said.

More principal appointments are expected before opening day, officials said.

A stricter attendance policy — made by a truancy task force led by the D.C. Board of Education — will be also implemented this year.

Under the new rules, secondary students with five or more unexcused absences in a class for a single advisory period will receive a letter-grade reduction for that subject. There are four such periods in a school year.

A failing grade will be issued for 10 or more unexcused absences in that class. Additionally, a student with 30 or more unexcused absences will not graduate to the next grade — a change affecting elementary and secondary students.

D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) has faced criticism for high truancy rates. Though there is no national standard for how a school system must compile truancy statistics, the District’s truancy rate is about four times the national average of 3 percent to 5 percent, according to the National Center for School Engagement, which is funded by the Justice Department.

D.C. officials previously set benchmarks to cut truancy rates to 21 percent in 2004-05, 18.5 percent in 2005-06 and 16 percent in 2006-07. By 2008, truancy rates should be 13 percent, according to DCPS.

The D.C. school system also has had problems with security. The Metropolitan Police Department took over responsibility for security before the 2005-06 school year. In addition to school-resource officers and contract security personnel, officers from the city’s seven police districts assist at the schools.

Community and school leaders have expressed concerns about school security guards, who they say are fraternizing with students and have improperly working radios. The hundreds of security guards in the D.C. school system are privately employed through District-based Hawk One Security Inc., but the police department supervises them.

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