Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A love song to Prince George's County, an excuse for not posting lately, and a crazy plan.

I haven't posted anything here for more than a month, because I've been devoting all my blogging energy to this new project.

Let me explain.

I have lived in Old Greenbelt for ten years, and I love it more than reason. I love the trees, the lake, the walking paths, the Co-op Grocery Store, the New Deal Cafe, the Labor Day Parade, the historic single-screen movie theatre in the center of town, the community center with its dozens of classes and events. And I love the people. Old Greenbelt has a disproportionate share of the sort of quirky people who would not have made fun of me in junior high school, and these are people who have a passion for making our community a real community. It's really something.

When I first moved to Greenbelt, I thought of my little community as a sort of oasis in the desert that is Prince George's County. Because Prince George's County, for as long as I can remember, has had a terrible reputation: In the greater Washington area, PG County is the proverbial "wrong side of town." It's tacky, trashy, crime-ridden, with underperforming schools. We Greenbelters, so I thought, should huddle together and avoid the rest of the county.

But I was wrong. A few years ago, I started exploring the county, and I was amazed at how much I liked what I found. Lovely parks, imaginative playgrounds, ethnic restaurants, bargain shopping, friendly people. I began to explore the neighborhoods: the old dignified neighborhoods, the beautiful new McMansions, the artsy neighborhoods, the up-and-coming neighborhoods. I started noticing how friendly people are, at the library, at the supermarket, at the playground. I found so much to love in this county. The pontoon boat tours at Bladensburg Waterfront Park, the farm animals at Watkins Park, the amazing Indian Creek Playground near Lake Artemesia, the historic Riversdale mansion. And we have the University of Maryland! We have GLUT, a co-operative vegetarian food market founded in the late 1960s by Vietnam War protesters where you can literally work for food. But we also have the upscale Wegman's, and we have dozens of farmers' markets. We've got the National Harbor, the Hyattsville Arts District, the Montpelier Arts Center, the Cheverly Publick Playhouse. We've got the brussells sprouts at Cafe Rue, the Kenyan style goat stew at Swahili Village, the Thai curries at Siri's Chef's Secret.This is not a wasteland; it's full of wonderful places waiting to be discovered. I have become a bona fide Prince George's County enthusiast.

We're affordable, down-to-earth, and we're moving in the right direction. Our rate of violent crime is still higher than Montgomery County's, but it has declined significantly in the last few years. What's more, our homicide rate is significantly lower than that of D.C. proper. And, sure, former County Executive Jack Johnson was convicted of corruption, as was a former superintendent of schools. But corruption like that is hardly unique to Prince George's County. Why does Prince George's County have such a poor reputation?

The answer to that question is probably complicated, but part of the answer undoubtedly lies with the schools. Prince George's County schools are underperforming, by just about any measure you want to look at. There are definitely bright spots in the landscape. Our son's neighborhood school, Greenbelt Elementary, is doing comparitively well, and he has had a positive experience in the two years he's been there. We have been impressed with the staff and the students, and we are fortunate to have a school building that is in relatively good repair. That doesn't mean that there is no room for improvement. To cite one example, until this year, when we were lucky enough to get a full-time art teacher, kids only had art class once a quarter. Once a quarter. (For kids in many other schools in the county, this is still the case.) And there are good things happening throughout the county: graduation rates are up, enrollment is increasing after a nine-year decline, innovative programs are being developed. Still, by and large, most people view county schools unfavorably.

We are fortunate to live in the Greenbelt Elementary School district. Greenbelt Elementary is not perfect, but it's a good school, and I want other families across the county to have the confidence in their neighborhood school that we do in ours. As I have spoken with parents and teachers and listened to their gripes about the county schools, I've noticed that most of us don't know whom to contact with concerns that cannot be resolved with the principal. Most of us don't want to write letters, make phone calls, or testify at Board meetings, because we don't think we can make a difference. Most of us don't even want to try to change anything, because it seems hopeless. There has been a pervasive sense of futility in the PGCPS community, and that sense of futility has led to apathy and resignation.

A few of us decided to band together, call ourselves an advocacy group, and try to figure out how to engage with the PGCPS power structure to influence the policies and practices that govern our schools. We believe that parents and teachers must have a louder voice in the system and find ways to effect positive change. We believe that this is worth going out on a limb for.

We gave ourselves the name "Prince George's County Advocates for Better Schools,"and we started a blog with the same name. We have a slogan (informed! connected! empowered!) and a vision statement and everything. I admit that the vision statement is a bit over the top — sort of jargon-y and full of buzzwords (though we've so far avoided "paradigm shift" and "synnergy") —but please tell me how else one writes a "vision statement."

We have found that we are not alone in our goals! There are groups of engaged parents, teachers, and community members scattered throughout the county. One of the purposes of our blog is to help connect people who have similar concerns and interests. We continue to find people who are fighting the good fight in their (geographical or philosophical) corner of the county, and we are often amazed at their efforts. We want more people to join forces. We want more people to have the information, support, and confidence they need to speak up.

So, that's why I haven't been posting on my personal blog lately. This project has taken an enormous amount of my time and mental space, more than I would have imagined at the outset. And do we have a large following yet? Not really. Have we gone viral? No. Have we made a difference yet in the schools? That's unclear. Do I often feel like Don Quixote? Yes. I am at peace with the reality of my situation: This is hard work without a whole lot to show for it (yet), but this was something I needed to try — and still do.

Long live Prince George's County and the public schools therein.

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