The CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools and the president of the county’s board of education came to one of the largest churches in the area Saturday to listen and share with parents about the plight of the 135,000 students in a school system that they say is improving after years of turmoil.
Monica Goldson, PGCPS interim chief executive, and Alvin Thornton, chair of the PGCPS Board of Education, took part in “Coffee and Conversations,” an event at Reid Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church in Glenn Dale that included a panel of community leaders such as education board Vice Chair Edward Burroughs III (District 8) and board member Belinda Queen (District 6).
“I was raised on the village concept, ‘It takes a village,'” Goldson said. “I know that I came to talk about the budget, but when you are in the House of the Lord and you have an opportunity to say a few things and be received where it is not offensive, I wanted to take an opportunity to do that.”
The forum began with a panel of eight people concluding that though Prince George’s schools are getting better, they can improve even more.
While several community activists articulated what they thought was the problem, the most passionate comments came from Nina Jackson, a 10th-grader at Oxon Hill High School.
“We talk about students, but are we talking to students?” Nina said. “Do you hear us? If the adults don’t add us to the discussion, then we as students will bring our own chairs.”
Among the topics discussed at the forum were mental health and how students are being treated and disciplined by the school officials, issues that spurred Tamara McKinney to attend because she said her grandchildren aren’t getting the help they need at school.
“I don’t think that the system is handling our kids very well,” McKinney said. “Our kids have emotional issues. I think [school officials] use suspension as a tool instead of learning how to handle peer mediation better. My granddaughter, who is 8, brought play money to school, a classmate tried to buy lunch with it and the police [got] involved. I don’t know why the police had to be involved in an issue like that.”
Lynette P. Cosby, who chairs Reid Temple’s social action committee, spoke of the importance of holding the event at the church.
“We wanted our members and the community to understand what is going on in the Prince George’s County schools,” Cosby said. “We see negative information on the news about the Prince George’s County Schools, but that is not the whole story.”
Goldson and Thorton sat quietly on the front row as community leaders offered various critiques regarding problems within the school. The loudest applause came when activists talked about the alarming number of students who leave the schools and get ensnared by the criminal justice system.
“Reid Temple bringing us together is so critically important for the development of a consensus umbrella over our children,” Thornton said. “[Ending] the school-to-prison pipeline starts with the community. That is the most important thing I heard today, [along with] holding all of us accountable for our children.”
Goldson, who was appointed in July by former County Executive Rushern Baker III, concurred.
“It is important to have the opportunity to make sure that we talk about what is working in Prince George’s County and talk about the work that we still must do,” she said. “Part of this journey is owning what we have to do to improve and then accepting the success that we have. I represent 135,000 students and every day is not perfect, but it is far greater than it was before.”
Shirley Carswell, another one of the event’s organizers, said that talking about issues within the school system is “critical” because too many people are moving out of the county in search of better education for their children.
“My daughter had to move out of Prince George’s because she didn’t want to put her 5-year-old on a public school,” Carswell said. “It is so important that Prince George’s builds up its school system. Reid Temple has Reid Temple Academy and people are trying to get in here because the Prince George’s schools are seen as less than, and it shouldn’t be that way.”
Even though he wasn’t on the program, Todd Turner, chairman of the Prince George’s County Council, also came by the forum.
“My motto this year as chairman of the county council is service and community progress,” he said. “Only through the community can you progress and obviously the churches are very important in making sure that we can do that in the county.”
Robin Young, a member of Reid Temple, said having forums such as Saturday’s event is all part of fostering Christian education throughout the community.
“Christian education is extremely important, and it is not only those principles that you learn in the classroom but it is also those principles that you learn in the church and in the home about how to treat other people,” Young said.