LARGO – It was standing room only in Largo High School’s cafeteria Wednesday night as citizens from all over Maryland gathered for the Kirwan Commission public hearing to give voices to the educational needs through the state.
Though the room was most heavily packed with educators and Prince George’s County residents, citizens traveled to the Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) high school from Montgomery, Calvert, Kent, Anne Arundel, Charles and Dorchester counties, as well as Baltimore County, for their one chance to make a plea to the commission to address the needs in their school systems.
Formed in June 2016, the commission was tasked to “review and assess current education financing formulas and accountability measures, and how each local school system is spending its funds” and review Maryland’s Study on Adequacy of Funding for Education, required by the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act. In addition, the commission also considered how the Every Student Succeeds Act will affect education in the state.
A final report is due to the governor on Dec. 31.
“We basically have a two-part charge,” Commission Chair William Kirwan said. “The first is to review the current funding formula that supports K-12 education in the state and to make any recommendations in that formula that we think we need to be made to meet the needs of the schools in Maryland. The second part of the charge is quite daunting. We’ve been asked to make policy recommendations.”
The public hearing on Oct. 25 was one of the last the commission held before starting to solidify its findings and recommendations in its finals meetings through the end of the calendar year.
The public speaking list was limited to 60 speakers, though many more showed up at the meeting. Educational leaders, teachers, parents and concerned residents all took the time to come out to the high school to put emphasis on their causes.
Kevin Maxwell, chief executive officer of PGCPS, and Segun Eubanks, chair of the county board of education, both spoke at the hearing to talk about the specific needs in PGCPS from their point of view.
“Chronic underfunding has a debilitating effect on school systems like ours and impacts our ability to provide more of the targeted resources and comprehensive services that students need most,” Maxwell said.
Both county schools’ leaders emphasized that the Prince George’s County school system is one of the 25 largest in the country with nearly 60 percent of the student population receiving free and reduced meals, and more than 15 percent learning English as a second language (ESOL). Providing education is vastly different than it was 20 years ago, they said, and the commission should provide additional funding to school systems with large populations of high-need students
In addition to school leadership, several teachers’ unions showed up in numbers to the public hearing. Teachers wore red shirts and held up “Yes” signs when a speaker said something they agreed with. Several educators spoke at the meeting, including Theresa Dudley, leader of the Prince George’s County Educators Association, and numerous county teachers.
Those who spend the most time with school children advocated for more resources for the classroom, in the form of updated textbooks, technology and supplies.
“One of the predominate concerns my members express it the lack of equitable, quality resources in our schools,” said Linda McLaughlin, from the Education Association of Charles County. “I have high school educators that do not have enough textbooks to constitute a whole class set. Students must share books and do not have access to books when they are at home.”
Other key points hit home by the speakers included more preparation and collaborative planning time for teachers, a solidified list of educational standards and curriculums that do not change in the middle of the year, funding and support for restorative practices in schools, better wrap-around services for students that include mental health counseling, health screenings, breakfast programs and more, and better support and funding for ESOL and special education programs and students.
Jes Ellis, a parent and teacher in the county, spoke specifically to “supporting the whole child” by talking about the challenges one of her students, whom she refers to as Elmer, faces.
“Elmer struggles without academic support at home. He needs extended school day and extended school year opportunities to help him build vocabulary and literacy,” Ellis said. “Elmer’s father recently died. Elmer hasn’t been able to sleep well since his family heard the news. He has been more distracted and moody in class. He’s been missing school. Elmer struggles without emotional support; he needs therapeutic counseling in school.”
Speakers also touched on how better to retain high-quality teachers, teacher burnout, class sizes, pre-kindergarten funding and the amount of standardize testing.
As the work winds down, the commission will meet throughout November and December to formulate its recommendations, and Kirwin said they will take to heart the testimony given at the Oct. 25 hearing.
“We are at the stage where we are just beginning to formulate our recommendations in the report. So, the timing of this session could not be better,” Kirwin said. “We are very much in the mode of getting things down on paper and getting our recommendations in place. So, your observations will lead into the process in a very powerful way.”