FORT WASHINGTON – As far as the options to address Accokeek Academy’s overcrowding go, consider the “idea board” erased. Discussions are starting over.
Last week, Sonya Williams, the District 9 Prince George’s County Board of Education member, held a meeting at Fort Washington Forest Elementary School to talk to parents from local schools about the action – or lack thereof – taken by the board in regards to Accokeek Academy’s feeder boundaries.
Williams said she held the meeting specifically to start the process of engaging the community over because, despite a number of meetings regarding the possible boundary changes, she had not heard from all voices and some were still extremely upset about the options.
“This conversation has been going on for a long time, but in about a year or so, we’ve had 11 meetings to discuss specifically Accokeek Academy boundaries,” Williams said. “In this year alone, we’ve already had six, because there is a lot of community engagement about the options that (were) on the table.”
The board voted earlier this year on a number of boundary changes throughout the county to address different community issues but had tabled the Accokeek change until a later date due to the surrounding neighborhoods coming out in force against the proposed change.
Boundary talks began two years ago when the school administration first proposed changes that had to be approved by the school board. While Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Kevin Maxwell has full purview of school closures, boundaries are under the board’s authority, and it voted in February 2016 to postpone all changes.
Talks were revamped in the fall of 2016 with several community meetings across the county to talk about specific changes. Williams said she held numerous coffee chats in her community where Accokeek more than dominated the conversation.
After the community information gathering, the Pupil Accounting and School Boundaries Office created four options for the board to choose from regarding Accokeek. The first option reassigned “The Preserves” development to Fort Washington Forest (FWF) Elementary. The second would have established a two-campus academy between FWF and Potomac Landing Elementary while the third would have moved the Talented and Gifted (TAG) Center out of Accokeek Academy and into FWF and a nearby middle school. The final option would have changed the middle school feeder from Accokeek to Gwynn Park Middle and Isaac Gourdine Middle schools.
Ultimately, Maxwell suggested the first option and the community reacted without favor.
Tommi Makila, a community activist, called the proposal a “slap in the face” after all the work Williams and his neighbors put into creating compromises – since Maxwell’s proposal was so similar to the one made in 2015/2016.
“If the decision was to make a bad decision or no decision and they made no decision, I think that was the right thing to do,” he said. “I think the CEO proposed a bad option.”
Ultimately the board tabled any Accokeek decision and in reaction, Williams said she was considering proposing moving the TAG center, as it was voted the most popular option during a community meeting. However, as far as Williams is concerned, she now sees the conversation as completely rebooted.
The meeting last week packed the elementary school’s auditorium with extra seats being placed throughout the duration of the two-hour meeting. Parents and community members from FWF, Accokeek Academy and Potomac Landing and several board of education members came to hear about the next steps and urge Williams not to consider moving the TAG program away from the academy.
The tension in the room was noticeable as representatives from each of the different schools spat weighted questions at each other.
“I’m just curious who those people are who are in favor of dissolving a successful TAG program because it just seems asinine to me,” said a mother of a second-grade student at Accokeek to rounds of applause.
Another woman, who said she had been to every meeting concerning the boundary changes, pointed out faces of upset residents that she was seeing for the first time at a meeting.
“Half of these faces? First time ever,” she said.
Arun Puracken and approximately a dozen of his students from Accokeek Academy took a large portion of the meeting to read speeches about why the TAG center should stay at their school.
“I have to say congratulations to you,” he said directly to Williams. “Look at what we’ve done. You have successfully pitted two communities against each other and managed to rationalize that it is okay to take from one school and one community and just hand to another. We have taken an overcrowding situation and turned it into a complete fiasco and war.”
Several students spoke of the progress they and their classmates have made in the TAG program and how a pullout program, where students who are TAG identified are pulled out of class for TAG-specific activities, would be harmful to their learning. However, that is how TAG students’ needs are addressed at most non-TAG designated schools.
Others pointed to low test scores and poor quality buildings at the other nearby elementary and middle schools, in a room filled with families from those schools, as reasons to not change boundaries or move programs.
However, Williams insisted several times throughout the meeting that the conversations concerning Accokeek’s boundaries are starting over and no decision or proposals will be before the board before school starts next year.
Mel Franklin, the county council representative for the area, agreed and said that none of the previous four options is the solution the area needs to address the overcrowding at Accokeek.
“Frankly, we’re going to have to sit down and come up with an option that’s not on that screen and that’s the purpose Sonya has for the rest of this conversation. Forget the past meetings, forget the past votes,” he said.
He also encouraged residents to petition their state delegates to create a law stating school surcharges collected from development in the southern area of the county, should be used to update and build schools in South County.
In the end, Williams said she just hopes the neighboring communities can come up with a compromise that everyone can at least agree to, if not be happy with.
“My job is to represent you at board meetings and in order for me to do that, I need to hear from you,” she said. “So as we are rebooting this conversation, I want us to all get on the same page in understanding where we are and where we need to go.”