By Candace Rojo Keyes
WOODYARD – Tensions were high last Thursday as parents from Rosaryville Elementary School and Tanglewood Regional School met with Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) staff for a discussion on adjusting enrollment.
Last week, the school system hosted the first of three meetings focused around engaging parents and the community in discussions about enrollment numbers across the county and how to balance enrollment across schools. In other words, how to change boundaries, create programs that entice families back to their neighborhood schools and use other techniques to create balanced numbers across the many schools in the county.
Johndel Jones-Brown, the director of the PGCPS Office of Pupil Accounting and School Boundaries, said the school system is taking a much longer route toward the final recommendations on balancing enrollment than it did last year.
“One of the reasons for that is we explicitly wanted to have more opportunity for follow-up discussion. Sometimes the issues cannot be simply summarized or identified in one meeting,” Jones-Brown said.
The relocation of Tanglewood students is one of the topics staff anticipate will take a while to find a compromise for.
Tanglewood is home to a thriving program that serves many students with a wide range of learning and mobility restrictions. It also happens to sit directly in the Joint Base Andrews flight path and, like many of the schools in the system, is old and in need of serious repairs.
Jones-Brown and Elizabeth Chaisson, a planner with PGCPS, said the long-term plan is to build a brand new regional school for children with disabilities, but said the funding for such a large project would likely not be obtained for 10 to 15 years.
The high school students from Tanglewood have already integrated into Oxon Hill and Surrattsville, but kindergarten through eighth grade are still in the old building.
“We’ve already decided to move the middle school students to Stephen Decatur, but it’s not ready yet, and again, Tanglewood is in bad condition. We want to move them somewhere else, quickly,” Chaisson told the parents gathered at the meeting.
The school system is currently looking at three different schools to move the Tanglewood students to: James Ryder Randall, Rosaryville and Walden Woods elementary schools, which Chaisson said all have the space to accommodate the 35-40 students from the regional school.
For parents of Tanglewood students who came to the Thursday meeting, there are a lot of concerns moving forward: Will their child still have the same amenities and care as at Tanglewood? Will there be a therapy pool? Are the halls in the other schools big enough to accommodate wheelchairs and ventilators? Are there bathrooms in the classrooms and are the stalls big enough to accommodate walkers and chairs? And the concerns continue.
“The frustrations come when they don’t understand that our children with severe and profound handicap conditions can’t just be moved anywhere,” said Dee Ann Henderson, a paraprofessional educator at Tanglewood.
At the meeting, Henderson and Tanglewood principal Debra Pearce spoke about how their students often come back to school after trips to the hospital with ventilators, respirators and life support. Their students often require nurses and special care.
“You just can’t support them at a regular school. You have to be set up, and Tanglewood is set up for that,” Henderson said.
On the other side of the possible movement, Rosaryville parents also came out in force to get their questions answered. Many of them, surprised by the possibility of moving Tanglewood students to their school, felt like the school system had already made up their minds.
Tiffany Simon, a mother of a student in the autism program at Rosaryville, said she came to the meeting to advocate for the students at the school, especially those in what she called a thriving autism program.
“We finally have a school that’s an awesome school,” Simon said. “My son is thriving. So when I found out about them either changing the autism program or actually expanding and bringing in another school, I worried about the classroom sizes.”
Simon said she worries about the impacts of having additional students in classrooms will have on her son, because he learned better in a small class with a lot of support.
It has also only been a few months since some of the children from the closed Skyline Elementary School were moved to Rosaryville Elementary School and both Simon and Henderson said more change could cause further disruptions and distractions for children who don’t deal well with change.
Another point of contention is the enrollment numbers at Rosaryville. Chaisson said the school is underenrolled with less than 70 percent of its capacity met, but Henderson doesn’t believe the school is physically large enough to accommodate the special needs students. Simon believes PGCPS should look at more than just numbers.
“It’s bigger than what it looks like on the accounting book. Okay, so what if they’re underenrolled? But look at those kids that are impacted. They won’t get the same chance at a bigger school, where they don’t have small classroom sizes. They’re kind of just left behind,” Simon said. “I don’t want that for my kid and I won’t stand for it.”
Jones-Brown said there is a fourth option for Tanglewood, and that is to leave the school as it is.
“If we can’t come out with something better, then let’s leave it alone,” he said. “If we can improve, we want to make sure we have considered the impacts on children, the impacts on staff, the impacts on the financing of the schools, the impacts on transportation and ride times, the impacts on parents, before moving forward.”
The parents of both schools requested a follow-up meeting next month, and Jones-Brown said the school system will find a date to hold it. He said the planning meetings will continue until a compromise or solution is found.
“What we’re doing is exploratory,” Jones-Brown said. “If we come out with some decent ideas, there may be a recommendation to the (chief executive officer). If we turn out with the problems being intractable or difficult we end up saying ‘this is not the right form, we need a longer study’ or we may say ‘right now we have no good solutions,’” Jones-Brown said.