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'The Orwellian Transformation of Diversity'

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Last April, I sat in the library of the Rock Creek Forest Elementary School in Montgomery County, Md., one of five white parents talking over our concerns with the principal. On the surface, the subject was academic quality, but the subtext was race. We were all exploring ways to avoid sending our children to the school, though maybe like all parents, I felt mine was a unique case. Our eagerness to leave the school was ironic, given that Rock Creek Forest is a "magnet school," designed to attract students throughout the country to its much-touted Spanish-immersion program. Here, even kindergartners are taught in Spanish.

That evening, the principal was fending off a barrage of questions about the school's racial composition. For her, it was a painful and recurring ritual of spring. Try as she may, there was no getting around the numbers: Though the school was 40 percent white, the Spanish- immersion and English programs were largely divided along racial lines. The immersion program was predominantly white. The English program was 90 percent minority, including both African-Americans and Hispanics, a third of whom were studying English as a second language.

The immersion program, as I would soon learn from several parents in our neighborhood, had too often become an unspoken haven for white flight. What was meant to be the multicultural pride of the school was now a subterfuge for disgruntled white parents who didn't want their children in an English program many perceived as inferior, largely because it was mostly composed of minority children from a different socioeconomic status. To many of these parents, it was as much a matter of class as race.

Time and again, I heard parents say they begrudgingly placed their children in the Spanish program--not because of the program but in spite of it. They simply wanted to avoid the much-disparaged English program. Equally disturbing was that school officials privately acknowledged that white flight was a serious problem but preferred to defend the status quo rather than challenge it, lest they be seen as racist or provoke litigation.

That evening in the library, I listened to the principal's half-hearted defense of the system. She insisted that the two programs--English and Spanish--are academically on par, a point that seems reminiscent of the old "separate but equal" doctrine discredited four decades earlier. If we white parents would only place our children in the English program, she explained, the stigma of that program would fade away. It was a desperate and frustrated call by one who had taken the brunt of criticism for a program not of her making. "They [the parents] have created this situation, not the schools," she would tell me later. "We teach whoever comes through the doors."

My family is interracial: My two sons are adopted from South Korea. I live on a fully integrated street and have always championed both public schools and diversity. Nor am I a stranger to issues of race in the classroom, having taught elementary school, high school, and college. I write this now not to embarrass the system or to attack the school (whose dedicated teachers and staff I admire greatly), but out of a conviction that only public debate and scrutiny will persuade districts like this to take stock of themselves.

My reasons for wanting my elder son transferred from Rock Creek Forest were as complicated as his young life. He was asking some very difficult questions about his adoption, origins, and identity. Given that he is Korean-born and being raised in an American Jewish family, it seemed to us that first learning to read and write in Spanish was the last thing he needed. Nor, we felt, would his quest for identity be anything but aggravated were he the only Asian-American in a class of African-American and Hispanic children. And, frankly, I was offended that minority children--mine included--should be ghettoized merely because they wished to learn in English.

And so we applied to transfer to the next closest public elementary school, Rosemary Hills. All we wanted was a school of genuine racial diversity (which, when Ilast looked, included whites in the classroom) where my son could learn to read and write in English. I soon found myself in a bureaucratic maze where racial guidelines were mindlessly invoked and the well-being of a child--my child--seemed to be the last thing on anyone's mind.

It was four months before we received a response. When we did, our transfer was denied. The reason stunned us. On the form, someone had handwritten "impact on diversity." When I called the school board, I was told that Asian-Americans could not transfer from Rock Creek Forest. They needed Asian-Americans to boost the diversity profile of the school.

I couldn't help but wonder what cultural contribution my son could make; he was just 5 months old when he left Korea. As a child, I'd had my own brushes with anti-Semitism, but never bearing the imprimatur of government. Given that the school board had already allowed this school to become divided along racial lines, it struck me as the height of hypocrisy that racial diversity should be invoked to block my son's transfer.

I also learned that Rosemary Hills had room for my son and was equally covetous of boosting its Asian-American representation. Lost in the slavish adherence to rules was the fact that my son's transfer from one county school to another would have zero net impact on diversity in Montgomery County's schools--a point I raised with county officials.

And still our appeal was twice denied--on grounds of race alone. I had always been told that if we made enough of a fuss, we might prevail. So within a 24-hour period, I got in touch with the offices of, among others, two state representatives, a state senator, and the governor. All agreed to ask the school board to explain the handling of our case.

I also called school board member Alan Cheung, who I admit I picked because his name sounded Korean and I was searching for a sympathetic ear. I found one. The next day he called for a review of our case. Within a week, a school board official called me to say the superintendent of schools had approved our son's transfer.

Six months had passed. A hundred phone calls. Countless letters. Our privacy had been compromised, most after-school care programs were already filled, and our faith in the system had been shattered.

Until my experience with the Montgomery County school board, I had unabashedly considered myself a liberal Democrat, confident that government, while at times bumbling, did more good than harm. Then Montgomery County provided me with this invaluable though painful civics lesson.

I realized that the word diversity had undergone some Orwellian transformation, that it was no longer a bridge but a barrier. Somewhere on the road to integration, the school board had taken a dreadfully wrong turn.

The author has written for Time, National Geographic, Gentleman's Quarterly, and other magazines. He teaches journalism at Georgetown University.

Go directly to the next article in this package, "The Days of Court Oversight Are Numbered," Andre G. Bouchard, Feb. 7, 1996.

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