Aaliyah Howell, 7, a first-grader at Holy Trinity Episcopal Day School,… (Katherine Frey/The Washington…)
Adrion Howell has strong connections to the Prince George’s County public school system. The 43-year-old lobbyist’s mother taught in the schools for 35 years, and Howell attended school there and worked as a substitute teacher in the county before going to Howard University Law School.
But, like many other middle-class parents in Prince George’s and in urban school districts across the country, when the time came for Howell’s daughter, Aaliyah, to attend Glenn Dale Elementary School, he instead enrolled her in a private school.
With Maryland’s second-largest school system poised for a leadership overhaul and a reconfigured school board next week, one of the major challenges facing County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) is how to convince the county’s middle class that his approach to fixing the schools will be successful enough to lure their children back into the public schools. Parents, particularly those who have opted out of the public schools for what they think is a better education elsewhere, say they are closely watching the transition.
Prince George’s has experienced middle-class flight before, when white families departed as the black population grew. But in what is now one of the wealthiest predominantly black counties in the country, more and more affluent black families have turned away from the public schools. Experts say the trend in Prince George’s is similar to what has happened in other large school systems that have struggled academically: The loss of middle-class families has led to a higher percentage of poor students using the public school system, less local accountability and waning community involvement.
“I think that there is a general consensus that something needed to be done,” Howell said of Baker’s attempt to take over the school system. State lawmakers approved a plan that allows Baker to select the new schools chief, appoint three members to the school board and name the board chair and vice chair. But parents, community activists and members of the board question how Baker is going to make improvements in the classroom, and he has offered few details.
“I guess the jury is still out in terms of how it will unravel. I’m just kind of watching it to see if it’s going to be any benefit to the system,” Howell said. “There are some chronic issues that need to be addressed and I’m not sure if this plan deals with those issues.”
Howell’s decision to send Aaliyah to Holy Trinity Episcopal Day School in Glenn Dale was not based on religion. It was rooted in the type of education and future he and his wife, Sharon, envision for their daughter. Howell said he initially was not averse to Aaliyah going to public school, but when he looked at his neighborhood school’s test scores, “we weren’t too enthused about what we were seeing.”
Although Prince George’s has seen gains in recent years on state testing, it continues to languish near the bottom of Maryland’s counties and is not keeping pace with its neighbors.
Baker has made turning around the school system a key focus of his administration, and one of his goals is to win over middle-class families.
“A lot of engaged parents live in Prince George’s County, but they don’t send their children to our public schools,” Baker said. “What we are going to do is talk to them and figure out why. . . . We are going to make sure they aren’t making the decision because they believe it is unsafe. A number of people do it based on the perception that they believe it is unsafe. Or based on the quality of the instruction that they think their child is going to get.”
Many experts and schools officials say a return of students from middle-class families is a key component to turning around struggling school systems.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said students from low-income families benefit from attending school “where your classmates expect to go on to college and act in a way that is conducive to that.”
He said research shows that students from poor families who attend schools where there are many students from middle-class families end up two years ahead of their peers. And, Kahlenberg said, middle-class parents are four times more likely to be members of parent-teacher associations and twice as likely to volunteer in class. He said parents with limited incomes do not have “bad values,” but some have transportation challenges or inflexible work hours that keep them from participating.
“Having a core set of parents that are actively watching over things benefits all students,” Kahlenberg said. “And middle-class schools, schools with a strong set of middle-class parents, perform better because of the involvement.”