WASHINGTON – High enrollment, teacher vacancies and complaints of too much homework are some of the issues local school districts are facing coming into a new school year.
The guests included Montgomery County School Superintendent Joshua Starr, Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack Dale, D.C. School Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Prince George’s County School Board Chair Verjeana Jacobs. Alexandria City School Superintendent Morton Sherman joined in via phone.
Jacobs of Prince George’s County says her school district is facing a shortage in teachers with the school year already underway.
“We started the school year with 109 vacancies, 39 of those were special education. That’s where we usually have our difficulties. Compared to six years ago, we would open schools with 1,000 vacancies,” she says. “Yesterday was a good start.”
She later pointed to the “date specific” policy in place where teachers can let the district know in early July they will not fill their positions. Jacobs suggests that notification deadline is too close to the start of school and puts the district at a disadvantage. No other district participating in WTOP’s “Ask the Schools” program is facing a vacancy issue.
Montgomery County hired 650 new teachers for this school year and reports few, if any vacancies, according to Starr.
D.C. schools have over-hired to be prepared for no-show teachers or last minute changes, says Henderson.
Dale says Fairfax County has had to turn applicants away.
“With a down-turn in the economy a few years ago, we’ve actually seen a huge increase in applicants. Last year, for example, we hired about 1,200 new teachers, but we had 30,000 applicants,” he says.
Every school district has more students enrolled this year than the last.
Montgomery County Schools added about 2,500 students a year on average, according to Starr. He says the county “has no choice” but to keep up with growth,
D.C.’s chancellor is thrilled for increasing enrollment.
“Ultimately what this shows is a renewed confidence in D.C. schools. We have a great leader, a great academic program,” she says. “If we can keep up modernization … We’ll continue to see enrollment boom.”
There’s a large disparity when it comes to students’ library experience depending on which local district they are enrolled in.
Every school in Fairfax and Montgomery counties has a librarian.
But only 50 percent of D.C. schools have librarians.
“We have a number of excess librarians eligible for replacement in libraries they came from,” says Henderson.
She says they will know by this week “which schools don’t have librarians. But, all of our schools have libraries. We’re working with our principals to ensure that each school that doesn’t have a librarian has a clear plan for how library services will be delivered to our young people.”
In Prince George’s County, libraries are short-staffed, and Jacobs acknowledges that short-coming.
“The last three years we’ve cut our budget $300 million. We’ve created student- based budgeting. We’ve put at the principal-level the determination what staff they want to ‘purchase,’ if you will … Everyone gets a half person (as a librarian), and they can share with other districts but principals can purchase a full staff person if they want to,” she says.
Each district participating in the “Ask the Schools” program approaches student citizenship in a similar way.
“We are here to serve every child who lives in our community. That’s what we verify, is they live in our community,” says Dale. “We do not validate citizenship status because we’re prohibited from doing so.”
A federal mandate prohibits public schools across the country from basing attendance on citizenship requirements.
There are also no questions asked about a student’s citizenship when it comes to after-school services in any district.
D.C. Public Schools recently sent a memo out to parents asking students meet a citizenship requirement to participate in after-school programs.
“It was a mistake and that has been clarified. We will serve all of our young people in after-school,” Henderson says.
She went on to say that her district supplements federal funding with local funding just so they can serve every student who needs it.
Many parents worry that their kids have too much homework. It’s an on-going concern that each district is addressing differently.
Prince George’s County schools have the shortest school day in Maryland, so Jacobs says supplementing instruction with homework is a proven success for the district.
“In the end of the day, it’s about achievement,” she says.
Montgomery County is still assigning homework, but Starr says the district is experimenting with getting rid of it.
“We said you know what, let’s just stop it for a little while and it has been really successful. We’re taking a look at the issue. We’re not going to eliminate it. But we want to say its got to be meaningful,” Starr says.
He adds that if homework is assigned, the district asks the principal to ensure it’s a valuable use of the student’s time.
Henderson says if a D.C. parent feels their child is getting too much homework, it’s worth a discussion with the school principal to address the issue.
Check out the full audio at right for more of the leaders’ perspectives.