Debate rages over siblings' access to popular school programs
Hite proposes end to policy that allows family members to receive preferential treatment
The debate over whether siblings should get preferential treatment when enrolling in specialty education programs in Prince George's County was revived last week, with school board members calling for a broader discussion about improving access to the popular programs.
Currently, if a child is enrolled in a county specialty program such as French immersion, biotechnology, talented and gifted, visual, creative and performing arts and Montessori and charter schools their younger siblings are generally allowed to enter the program if space is available, giving them an advantage over others who have to enter a lottery for a limited number of seats in the programs.
"While this is convenience for some families in the current process, it also results in a lack of access for others," Superintendent William Hite Jr. said at the Nov. 12 school board meeting.
Hite has proposed barring preferential treatment "on the basis of gender, race, national identity, family or sibling identity" for students enrolling in specialty programs.
The current procedure allowed parents to fill out a TAG-A-Long application for additional siblings if principals said space was available. Under the current proposal, TAG-A-Long applications would be eliminated.
Out of the 162 available seats in the French immersion program this year, 48 seats were filled by siblings, according to enrollment numbers from the department of pupil accounting, said Gladys Whitehead, director of curriculum.
"The board of education does not currently have a policy that allows or denies sibling enrollment," said board chairwoman Verjeana Jacobs (At large). "That is why we need to have this discussion."
Most board members argued that while allowing sibling admittance to specialty programs denies access to other students, Hite's proposal would not solve the problem.
"This proposal doesn't correct equity; It actually creates new problems," board member Heather Iliff (Dist. 2) said, adding that putting siblings at different schools would create difficulties for single-parent and large families.
Hite did not respond to board members' concerns and agreed to bring information regarding specialty program wait lists to the Dec. 7 school board meeting.
Robin Summerville, a mother of three children, told the board her eldest daughter's acceptance to John Hanson French Immersion in Oxon Hill was a blessing for her and her husband, who had hoped to educate the children in a bilingual atmosphere.
Summerville has two daughters enrolled in the school and planned to enroll her son in the pre-kindergarten program there next year.
Summerville, along with many parents, asked the board to consider grandfathering students enrolled in the program.
"We understand wanting to discontinue sibling enrollment to open up the pool, but it's not fair to parents already in the program," she told the board.
If Hite's proposal is approved, board members agreed that families with children currently in specialty programs should have their other children grandfathered into the program.
"We need to look at the people we have in the program because we did not give them the offer to opt out," school board member Linda Thomas (Dist. 4) said. "I think we deserve to do something for the people that are already in it."
Hite said grandfathering families into the specialty programs would be a feasible compromise as it is "resource neutral" and would not cost the school system additional funds.
In an effort to increase enrollment without excluding siblings, some parents asked board members to consider expanding specialty programs.
Hite said increasing specialty programs is a major goal for the school system but added that it is not on the horizon this year.
"I would love to give you hope, but that hopes come with resources and at the moment resources are limited," Hite said.
"Let's say we use one of the consolidated schools to expand programming...it will still take additional resources," he said. "The actual expansion will follow resources."
Board member Rosalind Johnson (Dist. 1) agreed that program expansion would be the ideal solution but said other ideas will need to be considered.
"While sibling enrollment is wonderful, it also is harmful to access for others," Johnson said. "If we can find a way to get beyond the inequity of it, I'm with it. But until there is ample money to be able to expand, I will go with grandfathering."