Jalah Berrian, a fifth grade student at William Beanes Elementary School in Suitland, jots down notes during a class discussion on climate change. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)
Jalah Berrian, a fifth grade student at William Beanes Elementary School in Suitland, jots down notes during a class discussion on climate change. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

Antonio Logan holds up various pictures and asks his prekindergarten students what are the first letters each represent.

“Is this a T?” he asks, holding a photo of a hedgehog.

“No, that’s a H,” some of the children say enthusiastically.

This type of interactive learning goes on daily at William Beanes Elementary, but Principal Dana Tutt said the 500-student school in Suitland could be even better with a few additions, namely a full-time mental health professional, art teacher and nurse.

William Beanes, one of 45 designated community schools in Prince George’s County, has about 90 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price meals, a sign of how the majority of families live below the poverty rate.

“You [must] have money to buy resources for programming. You have to have money for those things,” Tutt said. “We purchase coats for children. It’s not just about education. If they don’t get feel good about themselves, they are not ready for learning.”

The school joins thousands of others that seek a portion of the proposed $4 billion statewide education plan based on recommendations from Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education.

Public education enhancements from the 25-member group, also known as the Kirwan Commission, remains one of the biggest topics in the General Assembly. One of the most critical parts of the plan, supporters say, would go toward early childhood education that includes expanding prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-old low-income children, build more family support centers and provide additional teacher training.

The other four pillars focus on hiring a high-quality and diverse teacher workforce, college and career readiness programs, resources for special education and English-language learners, and accountability. The goal would be to implement plan by 2030.

William E. “Brit” Kirwan, the former University of Maryland System chancellor who chaired the commission, reiterated that teaching children early makes them successful when they reach high school and beyond.

But it doesn’t help that the state’s fourth-grade reading and math scores ranked 29th in the nation last year, he said before a Senate committee last month.

“We recognize that Maryland has some real good schools [and] excellent teachers, but we came to the conclusion we don’t have nearly enough of either,” he said. “We’ve got to have a workforce as good as any … in the world.”

‘Trained in Suitland’

William Beanes opened in 1972 and housed one of the school’s first principals, the late state Sen. Ulysses Currie.

As a community school, it can receive support from local organizers that can provide additional academic and social services for students and peer mediation.

Tutt, the school’s principal, said some parents can receive job training programs because they’re either unemployed or “receiving just enough to make ends meet.”

Cultural competency training, which provides for the ability to recognize subtle social differences, for teachers has also been a focus as part of the Kirwan recommendations in dealing with children from an urban and rural background.

Tutt graduated in 1989 from nearby Suitland High School in an area previously known for its violent crime and blight.

Former County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, whose children graduated from Suitland, pushed for economic development that includes ongoing construction of the $400 million Towne Square at Suitland Federal Center.

It will incorporate 1,000 residential units, a six-story senior apartment for those 62 and older and a performing arts center.

But there’s still some children who need special attention.

Tutt talked about a 7-year-old boy who dropped his lunch in the cafeteria and just cried. After she talked with the student, she found out his mother recently died in a car crash.

“That’s what cultural competency is — being able to identify that’s something is not right and then [asking], ‘What do I do for that kid?’” she said. “A lot of times we see it show up as a disciplinary matter, but that’s not what it is.

“My kids are amazing and they are so bright, but they come with some much baggage,” she said. “I’m not trained in mental health, but I’m trained in Suitland.”

‘Our Blueprint’

During the political discussions on how to pay for the Kirwan recommendations, a funding formula highlighted the state would contribute $2.8 billion and the 23 counties and Baltimore City at $1.2 billion.

Prince George’s and Baltimore, the two majority Black jurisdictions, would pay the highest among at nearly $361 million and $330 million, respectively.

The two presiding leaders in the General Assembly — House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson — have said work would be done to restructure those figures.

Some of the funding would pay for resources to help special needs students, in-school programming and technology and other supplies for teachers.

Prince George’s current enrollment stands at more than 136,000 as the second biggest school system in the state.

Instead of Prince George’s public schools CEO Monica Goldson focusing on the politics in how to pay for the recommendations, she allowed two high school seniors to speak Friday, Jan. 31 before the county’s House delegation in Annapolis to show how funding could produce even more high-achieving students.

Vanessa Valez, who attends High Point High School in Beltsville and moved to Maryland at age 6 from El Salvador, plans to attend the University of Rochester in New York in the fall on a full scholarship to study political science. She wants to become a member of Congress.

“I hope one day I get to see you on my campaign trail,” she said to the delegation.

“I’ll write your first check,” said Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-District 21) of College Park.

Jeremy Kiggundu, who attends DuVal High School in Lanham and immigrated with his family at age 6 to the county from Uganda, remains undecided on where he wants to attend college. With nearly 30 college credits he’ll earn by graduation, he has a few schools in mind to pursue engineering: Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Jeremy and Vanessa … are just two of the 136,500 reasons that I am blessed to serve as the leader of this amazing school district,” Goldson said. “This is not just a legislative bill for students, families and employees of our community. This is our blueprint for systemic investment, priorities and an opportunity to tell our students that they matter.”

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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