Prince George’s County Public Schools. (File Photo)

SEABROOK — Throughout 2019, the county’s academic community saw many changes, and had its share of ups and downs.

On June 18, Monica Goldson was named the permanent CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) after nearly a year serving as interim following the resignation of Kevin Maxwell.

In her new leadership position, Goldson has already dealt with a myriad of challenges facing the school system and has likewise celebrated PGCPS’ successes and efforts to improve the lives of students, faculty and staff.

Alvin Thornton spent his first year as chairman of the Prince George’s Board of Education (BOE) after being appointed to the position by County Executive Angela Alsobrooks in December 2018 following the resignation of former Chair Segun Banks. In addition, Edward Burroughs III spent his first year as BOE vice chair after being nominated on Jan. 10.

Throughout his first year as BOE chair, Thornton has taken numerous opportunities to discuss at length the importance of the Kirwan Commission, and why its recommendations will move education in the county in its most promising direction it’s seen in decades.

The Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education is a multi-year proposal that seeks to implement a new formula for education funding that distributes state funding more equitably to Maryland’s public school systems.

This past year, the Commission allotted PGCPS about $53 million, which was used to address teacher salaries, full-day Pre-K programs, support for students with disabilities and extra instruction tutoring.

Most recently, Thornton spoke at a community forum entitled “Conversations with Calvin,” where he joined County Councilman At-Large Calvin Hawkins to identify the significance of the Kirwan Commission at the Laurel Branch Library on Dec. 7.

Various BOE and county council meetings have examined issues of overcrowding and underfunding and addressed additional concerns of the school-to-prison pipeline, school bus driver shortages and mental health counseling, among others.

PGCPS announced on Oct. 17 that enrollment this school year is already up by about 4,000 students, which puts the total in the district at an estimated 136,600 students from last year’s 132,636 students.

This year’s numbers reflect PGCPS’ largest single-year enrollment in 15 years.

While the steadily rising enrollment indicates signs of increased confidence in PGCPS, it has concurrently raised issues with overcrowding – a topic that has been addressed extensively by school system officials and political leaders.

Overcrowding has been a significant issue, particularly in the northern portion of the county, and has led to construction projects and proposals targeting the over-enrollment that exists at several schools.

The BOE’s approval of the Adelphi Area Schools Over-Enrollment Relief Plan along with the reconstruction of Cherokee Lane Elementary School as part of cycle one in the PGCPS Educational Facilities Master Plan was a crucial step toward addressing the problem of overcrowding.

The plan seeks to add 503 elementary school seats, 1,200 middle school seats and 2,000 high school seats in three construction phases that began in November and is estimated to culminate by August 2022. Moreover, the new Adelphi Area High School to be built on the original 22-acre Cherokee Lane site will relieve overcrowding at High Point, Northwestern and Parkdale High Schools.

Additionally, PGCPS announced it would build more schools through a public-private partnership after receiving state approval. Through the new funding program, 30 schools will be renovated over the next 30 years, and PGCPS will invest $25-$30 million a year in school construction funds.

One of the most significant challenges Goldson addressed at the start of the 2019-2020 school year was transportation, which has been a problem that has carried over from last school year as PGCPS still experiences a shortage of bus drivers.

At one point, children were being picked up late and routes were not being covered, leaving available drivers to work multiple shifts to make up for the vacancies.

At a September BOE meeting, Goldson said she went to a bus stop herself to monitor on-time arrival and experience what PGCPS parents experienced firsthand regarding transportation issues affecting students.

“I understand parents worry (and the) frustration and anger over a late bus, a missed bus, pickup, or even a drop-off,” Goldson said.

Accordingly, PGCPS bus drivers expressed disdain about the conditions of the school system’s transportation.

After attending numerous BOE meetings, a group of bus drivers held a protest in Lanham on May 24 to bring awareness to what they considered less-than-desirable wages and work conditions, including the alarming driver turnover rate and bus lot conditions, among other concerns.

The lack of pay led to drivers leaving shortly after being hired. According to Roland Roy, a leader of the protest who has been a PGCPS bus driver for more than a decade, said that at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, the school system had only two routes that were not filled. That number inflated to 12 unfilled routes by December 2018.

More drivers were brought in but left shortly afterward. Toward the end of the school year in spring 2019, there remained 12 unfilled routes in addition to 12 drivers who were retiring at the time.

As drivers leave, remaining drivers faced the problem of having to take on extra routes and get pulled away from their regular destination to pick up students from other schools.

This creates a situation where buses then end up late picking up students before and after school.

Goldson explained that the issue is not unique to Prince George’s County, as there is a national shortage of bus drivers. PGCPS continues to explore ways to improve the situation and communication with parents about late buses.

To close the year, Goldson unveiled and proposed a $2.3 billion operating budget proposal for fiscal year 2021. PGCPS salary raises, free school meals, the enhancement of building and maintenance services through the Capital Improvement Project, and a middle school language immersion program were some of the highlights of Goldson’s presentation.

As it relates to school bus concerns, Goldson announced the launch of a Transportation Task Force to ensure the timely arrival and departure of school buses.

“All families have the same dream for their child: a quality education that nurtures their talents and propels their dreams,” Goldson said during the Dec. 12 executive session.

“By supporting students in and outside of the classroom, we prepare the next generation for the world beyond our schoolhouse doors.”

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