Editor’s note: Prince George’s County Public Schools has issued a response to the concerns raised in this article.
For the students and parents of Thomas Stone Elementary in Mount Rainier, the first day of school turned into a hot, lengthy, and sometimes scary ordeal thanks to the same administrative dysfunction that has regularly plagued the school in recent years.
This week I was part of a long line of angry parents forced to wait outside for more than 90 minutes in hot, humid weather just to drop off school supplies or meet our children’s teachers. Meanwhile, nervous children as young as four years old, many of whom do not speak English at home, were sent into the school to find their teachers without help from their parents.
The results were predictably disastrous. While I was standing outside, school staff walked out several times with scared, unhappy children and called out to the crowd, hoping to find their parents. In some cases, I later learned, the children didn’t know their last names (or couldn’t communicate them well enough for staff to understand) and so couldn’t be sent to the right classroom. Too often, their parents had already had to leave to get to work or to drop off older children at other schools. As a result, kids ended up “lost,” sent off to the wrong classrooms until the teachers could figure out who belonged where. That’s a traumatic way for little kids to start school, and completely unnecessary.
So why were we stuck outside while our children navigated the school system by themselves? The stated reason was a Prince George’s County Public Schools policy requiring all visitors to present government-issued identification. Before we could enter the school, each parent was asked to show ID and sign in — a significant change from previous first-day procedures. PGCPS authorities seem to have given little consideration to how that rule disproportionately impacts the county’s large low-income and immigrant populations, much as partisan voter ID requirements have been proven to harm those same groups by design.
But even setting aside these concerns, there are two public elementary schools in Mount Rainier, and yet only one had significant problems implementing this county-wide rule. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that schools all around our area coped better. Why?
According to Mount Rainier Elementary parents who spoke with me, information about the policy change was presented at the school’s back-to-school orientation last week and in the communications sent home to parents beforehand. It wasn’t included in either for Thomas Stone families. Not that mentioning the policy at the back-to-school orientation would have made much of an impact for Thomas Stone parents: we didn’t get the letter notifying us about orientation until the day after it was over.
Furthermore, Mount Rainier Elementary reportedly took steps to minimize the disruption an ID policy might have by allowing parents to stand in assembly areas without signing in, and only requiring IDs of those parents who wanted to visit classrooms. Again, this seems to have been true at a number of other elementary schools around the district too. This significantly reduced the lines at Mount Rainier and allowed parents to help their children find the right class and speak quickly to teachers. Meanwhile over at Thomas Stone, one woman waited for two hours to have a 30-second conversation with her daughter’s teacher about the girl’s broken arm.
If this kind of chaos were unusual for Thomas Stone, it would be more forgivable. But it seems to be the norm under the administration of Dr. Ashanti Foster, the principal beginning with the 2016-2017 school year. Again and again, parents have raised concerns about Dr. Foster’s unwillingness to return parent emails or meet with parents; the lack of information given to parents about school or district policy changes; school field trips with only enough slots for half of each class to attend, with the remaining children arbitrarily left behind; the high departure rate of disillusioned teachers and staff; and more. The teachers and staff at Thomas Stone remain as dedicated to the students as ever, but they are hobbled by a leader who seems to be as unresponsive to their concerns as she is to those of parents.
It wasn’t always like this at Thomas Stone. This will be my fifth year with a student there. For the first two years and under different leadership, I was excited about the school. I was one of its biggest champions in the community, encouraging other parents to give it a chance. Now I’m routinely disappointed. When Mount Rainier and Brentwood parents leave Thomas Stone and transfer their kids to Mount Rainier Elementary, I just shrug.
How can I blame them?
Mount Rainier resident Sarah Christopherson is a Thomas Stone Elementary School mom and the policy director at the National Women’s Health Network.