BOWIE — Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) held a forum to get community input on their staff proposal to move sixth grade into middle school, expand Spanish and Chinese immersion programs into middle school years and change neighborhood school boundaries in the Bowie area on Oct. 16.
The forum, which took place at Benjamin Tasker Middle School, was the third of three forums on the topics. The first two took place at Whitehall Elementary School and Kettering Middle School, which will also be impacted by these proposals.
The PGCPS Board of Education will hold its own public hearing on these topics at their meeting on Nov. 12 and will officially vote on Nov. 21. Families will be notified of the changes on Dec. 8 and they will be implemented in September 2020.
The proposal to move sixth grade is part of a multi-year plan to migrate sixth grade to middle school throughout the district, said PGCPS Capital Programs Planner Joe Wolf.
“The pedagogy of research shows that sixth grade is best served in a middle school environment,” he said. “There is more opportunity for electives and to enter special programs and when sixth grade is in middle schools, kids are on campus for three years instead of two.”
Currently, 43 schools are kindergarten through sixth grade while 72 are kindergarten through fifth grade. The proposed sixth-grade realignments for fall 2020 include Allenwood Elementary School, Princeton Elementary School where rising sixth-graders will move to Thurgood Marshall Middle School, Avalon Elementary School where they will move to Thurgood Marshall and Isaac Gourdine Middle School, and North Forestville Elementary School where sixth-graders will move to Walker Mill.
PGCPS is also proposing changes in boundaries for elementary schools in Bowie due to over-enrollment of Whitehall Elementary School. According to Wolf, Whitehall is 172% over capacity while surrounding schools have empty seats. The state will not fund the expansion of a school if there are empty seats at surrounding schools.
The boundary changes would move students who attend Northview, Rockledge, Tulip Grove, Whitehall and Yorktown Elementary Schools affecting students who live in areas such as Chapel Road, Laurel Bowie Road, Old Annapolis Road and Church Road.
“The way this would play out for different grade levels is that if the child is in fourth grade this year, they would be allowed to remain at Whitehall next year regardless of where they live and finish out their elementary school years there,” Wolf said as he explained how the transition would work. “If the student is rising to kindergarten or any grade lower than five, they would be reassigned to their new school.”
Finally, PGCPS is looking at an expansion of Spanish and Chinese immersion programs that currently stop in fifth grade.
As part of the expansion, feeder middle schools for Spanish immersion elementary schools would be reassigned so that rising sixth-graders from Marlton Elementary school would matriculate to Gwynn Park Middle School instead of James Madison Middle School and sixth graders from Patuxent Elementary School would go to James Madison instead of Kettering. This way, the schools would be 40% immersion and 60% neighborhood students.
What followed Wolf’s presentation was a question and answer session where parents were skeptical of the proposed changes, especially with the boundary changes to address overcrowding at Whitehall.
These concerns ranged from the timing of the changes and speed at which PGCPS seems to be moving with them, children not being able to continue with specialty programs after being moved into a different school and the reasons for such significant overcrowding at Whitehall.
Board of Education Member Raaheela Ahmed (District 5) attended the meeting and said she had gotten a lot of feedback from parents concerned with the boundary changes for Whitehall. In response, she said she would be sending a letter to PGCPS CEO Monica Goldson asking that the board not vote on the change on Nov. 21.
“I request your immediate removal of boundary changes for Whitehall Elementary School from any proposal you bring forward to the board of education,” Ahmed said in her letter. “Instead, I request your support in executing a District 5 Boundary Task Force that consists of parents, students, staff members and community members from each affected school to look at the possible strategies of addressing overcrowding at Whitehall Elementary School over the course of the next several months.”
Brittney Gordon-Williams, a parent who attended the meeting, expressed support for Ahmed’s proposal. Having her kids attend Whitehall was one of the factors that went into choosing her home in the area and to have the possibility of her children being moved to a different school did not seem like the best solution.
“This matters a lot to people like me and one thing I really urge the board to consider, because no one wants their kid in a crowded classroom, I don’t, but there are other things that need to be looked at, like the people who are fraudulently using addresses to go to our school,” Gordon-Williams said.
“There are serious issues that should be looked at as part of a task force before a decision gets made.”
Some parents gave alternate strategies such as moving specific classrooms or groups from Whitehall over to empty classrooms at Tulip Grove or focusing on which grade levels make up most of the overcrowding.
Others suggested that inequity is the reason that Whitehall is overcrowded and that people want their children to attend the school because of its good reputation but if neighboring schools had the resources to be just as good the problem would not be as bad.
Following the forum, PGCPS CEO Monica Goldson issued a statement in response to Ahmed’s letter and concerns from parents about the boundary changes on Oct. 22.
“On Thursday, October 24, 2019, I plan to formally withdraw the recommended proposal for Whitehall Elementary School and allow for a third-party comprehensive review of how best to address overcrowding,” Goldson said. “This review will be included with the comprehensive secondary school analysis requested by the Board of Education as we prepare for six new middle schools, scheduled for completion by fall 2023.”
Goldson added that in the interim her team will complete a shared housing review and residency certification at Whitehall Elementary School in order to verify the appropriate educational services for all students. She plans to engage with the Whitehall community again this school year as these two internal reviews are completed.