Parents, students fight sudden cancellation of HMS creative writing major; win partial victory

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Hyattsville Middle School. HL&T file photo.

BY KIT SLACK — When applications for the Creative and Performing Arts Program at Hyattsville Middle School (HMS) became available in December, students could apply for music, visual arts, dance, media production, and theater majors.

Something was missing though. Hyattsville resident Sean Helfrich has a daughter in sixth grade at HMS who he said had been attracted to the school by its creative writing major. That major was not listed as part of the Creative and Performing Arts Program for 2016-2017, though it has been part of the HMS program for more than 10 years.

During seventh and eighth grades, students accepted into the creative writing major at HMS build a portfolio that includes plays — many of which HMS theater students perform — poems, short stories, newspaper articles, and essays. Students have participated in poetry slams, and conducted oral history projects at a local home for the elderly.  

No other school in the county has a program like this, according to county officials.

In the classes, students critique each other’s work. In the words of Seiji Hayashi, the president of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Organization (PTSO), the major “puts like-minded kids together so they push each other to excel.” They spend three to four hours a week together in creative writing classes.

When parents discovered that the major was cancelled prospectively, “we couldn’t get detailed answers,” said Hayashi, “so we asked PGCPS officials to come and explain” at a PTSO meeting on Jan. 10. Attendees had a lot of questions, according to Hayashi. “Everyone was very dissatisfied with the responses from PGCPS officials who made it sound like they had no choice but to eliminate the program,” he said. From his perspective, “they could not come up with a solid reason as to why.”

John Ceschini, arts integration officer, Anita Lambert, the coordinating supervisor for the creative arts programs office, and Krissi Fosset, the instructional director, all attended on behalf of Prince George’s County Public Schools. Prince George’s County Councilmembers Deni Taveras and Dannielle Glaros both came, too.

So did more than 50 parents and students, according to Hayashi. On Jan. 16, the PTSO began a letter writing campaign demanding reinstatement of the program.

The PTSO’s advocacy had an impact. On Jan. 18, Ceschini wrote a letter to parents reinstating the creative writing major for the 2017-2018 school year.

However, for subsequent school years, he said that creative writing would be offered only as an elective. “Maryland State Department of Education does not recognize creative writing as a fine arts major,” Ceschini said, and HMS is the only school in Prince George’s County that offers a major in creative writing.

The PTSO is bringing their campaign to permanently reinstate the major to the Board of Education for Prince George’s County.

At the board’s meeting on Jan. 19, Juwan Blocker, the student board member, himself a graduate of HMS’ creative writing program, said he was “very disappointed to hear that we would be even considering cutting this program,” which he called “very beneficial” and said was “a stepping stone to where I am.” Blocker is petitioning CEO of Schools Dr. Kevin Maxwell for permanent reinstatement of the major.

Blocker’s motion to add the issue to the board’s agenda that evening failed; opponents to the motion including board member Curtis Valentine said that the board is still assembling information, including from Maryland State Department of Education, and needs to be briefed more fully before they can respond.

During an open comment period, Hayashi, Helfrich, and Orla Collins, HMS Student Body president and an eighth grader in the program, all spoke in defense of the creative writing major.

Collins said that she is upset about the cancelation of the program. “I have a passion for writing,” she said, adding that she “is not taught to write creatively in English or other classes.” She said that only in creative writing are students assigned full-length novels to read. The major “draws in high achieving students.”

Hayashi touted the benefits of the creative writing program.   

“Creative writers become great communicators, and great communicators become great leaders,” he said. “Words can change the world.”