MOUNT RAINIER – A major problem faces one small city in Prince George’s County as it tries to tackle the tale of two elementary schools.
Mount Rainier, in Northern Prince George’s County, is in the middle of a problem that is not uncommon for the northern area: overcrowding. However, while one elementary school, Thomas Stone Elementary, struggles with finding room to place more students, across town Mount Rainier Elementary is dealing with an issue that is quite the opposite. Mount Rainier Elementary is in the midst of an enrollment decline.
According to number provided by the school system, Thomas Stone Elementary is nearly 200 students over capacity. The school is slotted to hold 574 students, but currently enrolls 746. That puts the elementary school at nearly 130 percent utilization. In contrast, Mount Rainier Elementary can hold 406 students but currently has 315 students, making the school 78 percent utilized.
Rhianna McCarter, a pupil accounting and school boundaries staffer, spoke with a group of about 30 parents with the help of translator to inform the families of both elementary schools about the options Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) has to balance enrollment in the area.
“The last time (Mount Rainier Elementary) had a boundary change was in 2003 and that was when Cottage City was reassigned to Rodgers Heights (Elementary). Thomas Stone in 2006 had a boundary change,” McCarter said.
Elizabeth Chaisson, a planner with PGCPS, said part of the reason for the urgent need to address the overcrowding issue is the lack of boundary changes over the past several years. She said PGCPS has hesitated to make changes because residents and political leaders alike recoil at the mention of boundary changes.
“People get very upset. They feel, ‘I moved to this neighborhood. This is my school. Don’t change it,’” Chaisson said. “The bottom line is we’re here tonight to talk about boundaries and people don’t like boundary changes, so we’re here to get your feedback about what the best change is for your community.”
The school system has slotted Thomas Stone for renovation in phase two of its 20-year capital improvements plan, but that is approximately six years away from initial discussions of funding, and both Chaisson and McCarter said a solution is needed in the meantime.
Previously PGCPS held a meeting on several different enrollment issues in the northern area of the county at Bladensburg High School on Oct. 28. Approximately five residents from Mount Rainier attended that meeting and requested a follow up.
As a possible interim measure, McCarter said, PGCPS has opened up the possibility of families volunteering to transfer from Thomas Stone to Mount Rainier, though it has not been effective.
“As we look toward possible solutions, one of them is the idea of getting students to volunteer to transfer,” she said. “Right now there is fewer than 20 students that have taken advantage of that opportunity. So, that hasn’t really been an effective solution so far.”
However, McCarter said the school system is currently looking at three different options to solve the enrollment issues at the two schools, but also said PGCPS is open to, and really wants input and ideas from the community.
The three ideas presented to those gathered all dealt with ways to increase numbers at Mount Rainier and decrease those at Thomas Stone and include: 1. creating a major boundary change to reroute the eastern-most portion of the city (the Kaywood Gardens Apartments and surrounding areas), areas of Brentwood essentially between the midsection of the town and Route 1 and all of North Brentwood to Mount Rainier Elementary, and moving all sixth grade students to their boundary middle school, 2. moving pre-k and Early Start classes to Mount Rainier, or 3. making a minor boundary adjustment to reroute Kaywood Gardens to Mount Rainer, which McCarter said would have “no material impact on enrollment at either school.”
All of the homes in Mount Rainier, Brentwood and North Brentwood are within the “walk zone” for Mount Rainier Elementary, meaning they are within 1.5 miles and transportation would not be provided for the students to get to school.
At the end of the meeting, parents and community members were given a feedback sheet to rank the three options and provide their ideas for more options. Several residents asked for another follow-up meeting held at Mount Rainier Elementary.
McCarter said PGCPS would try to schedule another meeting before Kevin Maxwell, chief executive officer of PGCPS, presents his recommendation to the school board on Jan. 19. A public hearing for the changes is anticipated on Feb. 2, 2017.