Setting the stage for reform of Prince George's schools

Superintendent: Iris Metts faces an daunting challenge in Maryland's largest school district, where test scores are among the lowest.

January 08, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

HYATTSVILLE -- Iris Metts brings her fact-finding expedition to a halt as she stoops to view writings on the wall.

"There's some quality instruction going on here," she calls over her shoulder before straightening up and moving on. Others in her party pause to view the essay on autumn by a Parkway Elementary School student before scurrying to catch up.

Metts, the new superintendent of Prince George's County schools, is doing a lot of reading these days: the walls of schools, where youngsters' classroom work hangs; the moods of PTAs, which are tired of a failing education system; and the body language of state lawmakers, who have grown frustrated with years of excuses.

The 56-year-old educator is on a mission to transform the state's largest school system with the second-worst test scores. Her $160,000-a-year contract is performance-based: Reach a goal, get more money.

As Metts goes from school to church to civic group, she preaches her own three R's. Raise test scores. Restore credibility. Recruit and reward top-flight staff.

It's just that simple. It's just that hard. Metts realizes she has some time -- not a lot -- to make things happen.

"The expectations are high," she acknowledges, sitting in her office in Upper Marlboro. "People deserve a good school system, but I have to remind them I've only been here five months."

Just last month she received a stark reminder of how far Prince George's schools have to go to achieve even modest success. The system floundered again on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, with overall scores dropping one point from 1998 levels.

Metts says those scores are a reflection on the old administration, not hers. She predicts improvements in MSPAP and the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, which will be given in the second, fourth and sixth grades next spring.

"I would expect to see a six-point gain in CTBS in my first year. Then MSPAP will follow," she says.

Prince George's has other hurdles as well. It is still trying to find its way after 26 years of court-ordered busing to achieve integration. It is building 13 schools to handle the county's growing population and has returned bused children to their neighborhoods, but officials say that's about half the number of schools they need.

Nearly half of the 130,000 students receive free or reduced-price meals. Next to Baltimore, Prince George's has the highest number of uncertified teachers in the state.

And all over the school district, roofs leak, electrical wiring can't handle computers and books are outdated.

On a recent field trip to aging schools inside the Capital Beltway, Metts turned to the principal of Adelphi Elementary and said simply: "This is a school you just gut and turn into parking."

When school officials have attempted improvements, they have sometimes fallen short. Parkway, for example, reopened this fall with a new wing. But the addition has no storage, and the nurse's office has no running water.

Metts says if the people of Prince George's are hoping for radical changes, they'll get their wish, starting with the administration.

Working with a team

The new superintendent has hired two deputies, both from Delaware where she was the state's first secretary of education. She has created five regional superintendents to provide direct supervision of the schools.

The administrative team criss-crosses the county almost every weekday evening to meet with parent-teacher groups and community activists. As the members drive home, they debrief each other by cell phone.

"This is my 30th year in education. I survived cancer last year. And I left a superintendency to come work for Iris. Why? Because she gets things done," says SueEllen Harris, deputy superintendent for instruction. "This is the most exciting job I've had. We're taking on the inertia of a giant."

The superintendent is in the community four nights a week and has visited more than 50 schools, some of which hadn't been seen by a superintendent in more than a decade.

She has reached out to Andrews Air Force Base and churches to ask for 10,000 volunteers to read aloud in classrooms, and to the business community to tap its management expertise.

Metts has vowed to meet with each of the nearly 30 city and town councils in the county.

"I have to get the trust of the citizens," she says. "I don't think we have overlooked any source of power in Prince George's County."

She has not ignored the power in Annapolis.

In November, she met with some of the school district's biggest critics: members of the General Assembly. Afterward, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore delegate and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, released $8 million in state aid he had withheld because of mismanagement and waste outlined in a 1998 school system audit.

State Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, says Metts is impressive as a lobbyist for her county.

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