After years of scrutiny for its academic underperformance, Prince George's County (Md.) Public Schools is adding programs to its academic arsenal to increase student achievement, by strengthening that critical bridge between middle and high school and empowering students to want to graduate.
In the 2008-2009 school year, all middle schools will roll out "contextual learning programs," as part of Superintendent John E. Deasy's two-year effort to rebuild the district to get its schools on par with neighboring counties and to remove the district from "Corrective Action" under the No Child Left Behind law for failing to make enough yearly progress in 2006.
The new programs will provide students the chance to specialize in different studies such as biotechnology and technology. In 2008-2009, all of the district's 30 schools will have at least one contextual learning program, including a new talented and gifted program for students in grades 2-8; a national program, Achievement Via Individual Determination, that helps middle-of-the-road students prepare for college; and an International Baccalaureate program.
Low Middle School Achievement
"Achievement was lowest at the middle schools, so we needed to support them right away," says Deasy. When he was discouraged by staff to enroll his own child in certain schools, Deasy vowed that other parents would never feel that way.
From biotech to music courses, the new contextual learning programs are designed to stimulate middle school learners and help them transition from a nurturing environment to an environment where they must start making proactive decisions about their future.
Since ending the district's streak of five superintendents in eight years, Deasy has worked with his staff toward strengthening the district, the second-largest in the state, in all the ways urban districts require, from ensuring student safety to closing the achievement gap amid a poverty rate of 60 percent.
The addition of the signature programs is the latest in a string of newly implemented initiatives toward excellence that are part of the district's master plan for achievement. "We've seen some stunning change in the fi rst two years," says Deasy, noting the district's increased Advanced Placement test scores. "Most people are suspicious of local test scores, but AP scores are national," he says. In the last two years, 3s, 4s and 5s on AP exams have increased by 34-38 percent.
And since the 2006-2007 academic year, the number of schools needing improvement has dropped from 83 to 68.
A grand systemwide reform scheme is also in the district's future that, if approved by the school board, will result in a number of K8 schools replacing separate, more traditional elementary and middle schools. This reform will allow for what Deasy calls "schools of choice"-community contract schools, or theme-based schools.
Some of the district's larger high schools will also be redesigned into "smaller learning communities" to create more personalized attention and learning for students in different career- and theme-oriented environments.
In January, PGCPS announced that an additional 11 teachers became board certified, making it among the top five Maryland school districts for the number of nationally board certified teachers.
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing writer for District Administration.