UPPER MARLBORO – Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) was no stranger to front-page news in 2016.
This year was marked by multiple tragedies in the school systems, headline-grabbing scandals, and quiet successes. PGCPS celebrated 30 years of The Science Bowl, increased testing scores and graduation rates and saw grand achievements from their students, but the school year was also marred by allegations of child sexual abuse and the loss of the federal Head Start grant.
Two of PGCPS’s leaders, Chief Executive Officer Kevin Maxwell and Board of Education Chair Segun Eubanks, reflected on the school year and how they gauged PGCPS’s progress and shortfalls.
“There’s no doubt that there were certainly some big, significant challenges for our school system this year, and certainly the issues about reporting and child abuse and those kind of things have been big conversations, as was the loss of the Head Start grant,” Maxwell said. “That said, I have to tell you, I’m pretty proud of how people reacted and responded to it.”
PGCPS had a pretty rocky start to its year. In February, then-school aide Deonte Carraway was arrested in connection to the alleged making of child porn and other child sexual abuse allegations at Judge Sylvania Woods Elementary School in Glenarden.
Carraway allegedly produced more than 50 videos with children between the ages of 9 and 12 that included at least 23 alleged victims. A grand jury later indicted Carraway on approximately 270 counts of sex offenses, child porn and sexual abuse of a minor.
In response, the school system set up a Student Safety Task Force to guide PGCPS on what it can and should do to ensure student safety. That task force made several recommendations to Maxwell and the county board of education, which the board then started to put into place during an emergency summer session.
Since then, the system has been actively updating policies and retraining teachers, principals and school employees on appropriate behavior, reporting policies and knowing the signs of child abuse.
“We have been doing the retraining and we have been very aggressive, I think, in our response ,” Maxwell said. “We’re a lot farther along and we’re a lot better educated in terms of training of our staff and in the issues surrounding that work.”
In August, PGCPS faced another setback when the system announced they would lose the more than $6 million federal Head Start grant after reported noncompliance with fixing concerns raised by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF).
The ACF had sent a report to the school system detailing deficiencies it found with the county Head Start program, which included examples of broken policies regarding student punishment. Though Maxwell and the report noted PGCPS did make efforts to correct the deficiencies, when the ACF reviewed progress, they found different instances of noncompliance and decided to rescind the grant.
Since then, Maxwell announced the school system would relinquish the grant rather than fight to keep it and initiated a similar program titled Early Start. The school system eliminated its office of Head Start and moved the new program into its early childhood office without a break in services to families and students.
“We were able to keep our promise with the Head Start work and made sure every single child that was affected continued to have service provided and we have done that,” Maxwell said. “I think we should be judged on how we responded and I think we responded well.”
PGCPS has faced other controversies and hardships as well. The decision to close both Forestville High School and Skyline Elementary was heavily debated and fought by the communities and families impacted by those schools.
Former Board of Education member Lyn Mundey was convicted in a school lunch theft scheme, a Forestville teacher was arrested for alleged sexual abuse of a student and the school system lost two teachers to domestic violence, lost students to both gun violence and vehicular accidents, and lost a principal to an undetected heart disorder.
“We know and understand that how we respond to these crises and how we get through them together, that we need to figure out how to be more unified after crises and loss than we were beforehand,” Eubanks said. “I think we’ve seen that kind of response through this year. I don’t know that we could have had a year with quite as much loss and difficulty as we had this year.”
However, 2016 was also a year of great improvements and successes for the school system.
In February, the school system received half of the state Excellence in Gifted and Talented Education (EGATE) Awards, and Angela Malone, an Oxon Hill Middle School teacher, received the acclaimed Milken Family Award, also known as the “Oscar of Education.”
In March, PGCPS celebrated a 2 percent increase in overall graduation rates from the previous year, according to state data. The 79 percent overall graduation rate is the highest on record for the school system and puts it just behind the national graduation rate of 82 percent, which is detailed in a U.S. Department of Education report.
“We said that in order for us to really improve as a district in dramatic ways, we need to improve not just as everybody else is improving but faster than the state average,” Eubanks said. “We’ve done that in both our kindergarten readiness assessment and in our graduation rate.”
The school system also saw a 1.2 percent improvement on the overall pass rate for Advanced Placement tests, a 1.7 percent overall increase in International Baccalaureate pass rates, and a slight increase in ACT scores, according to the state department of education. At the same time the system did see a slight dip in Maryland School Assessments and SAT scores.
Both Maxwell and Eubanks attributed these increases to a large effort from all school employees. Maxwell said the school specifically tackled graduation rates by taking a new approach to the matter, including utilizing a credit recovery system and systematically identifying which students needed support.
And the hard work put in by teachers and administrators alike has not gone unnoticed, considering the school system welcomed nearly 1,000 more students this year and a growing list of public-private partnerships with community businesses and large names like Venture Philanthropy, Junior Achievement, and County Executive Rushern Baker, III’s Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative.
“Even through all of those things with the head start and what happened early in the year with Carraway, we didn’t lose enrollment in our schools. None of our parents took their children out of the head start program,” Baker said.
Baker also lauded recent changes the system has made to improve the overall culture at PGCPS and touted the improving and trailblazing arts and language programs, something that Economic Development Corporation President Jim Coleman also applauded.
“The results are clear: 2,000 more kids are enrolled in our school system today versus when County Executive Baker went into office. Second thing is 11 out of 24 of our high schools saw double-digit improvements in SAT scores last year. And lastly, he’s got so many hotshot programs going on in technology and STEM. It’s off the charts,” Coleman said.
In 2016, PGCPS also launched its Family Institute to increase and improve family engagement across all facets of the school system, celebrated 30 years of French Immersion, and began the year with only 33 teacher vacancies, which is no small feat for a system of its size.
The body also increased the number of arts integration schools to 65, continued expanding its language programs and is now home to more than 300 National Board Certified Teachers.
“To see the work that we’ve done in Prince George’s County is really incredible, especially considering that, not too long ago, people said that teachers who teach high-need students, teachers who teach in predominantly urban schools and teachers of color have a significantly harder time achieving National Board certification,” Eubanks said. “We’re breaking the mold in all three of those categories.”
PGCPS was also home to a number of Gates Millennium Scholars, the regional Science Fair champ, numerous Ivy League acceptances, and millions of dollars in college scholarships.
In addition to academic successes, county school students also shone bright in athletics. County students claimed three state titles and broke records at the state track and field championships; Prince George’s dominated the basketball scene with both Forestville and Largo girls winning their divisions and Eleanor Roosevelt boys doing the same; and Dr. Henry A. Wise, Jr. High School also just won back-to-back state championships in football.
“We end 2016 moving into 2017, I think in many ways, more united, more determined as a board and as a team with the administration,” Eubanks said.