Md. District Plans Return To Neighborhood Schools

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The Prince George's County, Md., school board has reached a milestone in its lengthy effort to end mandatory busing dating to a 1972 desegregation order.

Beginning next August, about 4,100 students will be moved from the high schools they are now attending to schools in their neighborhoods, under a rezoning plan ratified this month by the board of the 132,000-student district just outside Washington.

"This is monumental," said Donna Beck, the president of the Frederick Douglass High School PTA and a member of the committee set up to monitor the federal court order. "We must be sure that as we redraw boundaries, we don't divide them by rich and poor."

The changes will affect only 9th and 10 graders—a decision that seeks to minimize the impact on the school careers of 11th and 12th graders.

And only a small portion of the 13,000 students in the county who are bused outside their communities will be affected by this stage of a long-term plan that will be phased in over several years.

By approving the new student-assignment plan Nov. 16 , Prince George's County joins dozens of other districts nationwide that are adjusting to the end of mandatory-busing orders by returning students to neighborhood schools.

Equity, Not Convenience

In the case of Prince George's County, the school system is a different place from what it was in 1972, when 85 percent of its enrollment was white and just 12 percent was African- American.

Today, because more than 75 percent of the district's students are black, it didn't make sense to many residents to continue busing students from predominantly black neighborhoods to predominantly black schools elsewhere.

"I tell people they shouldn't look at this as the end of desegregation, but the beginning of a story," said Alvin Thornton, who was on the Prince George's County school board in 1996, when the board began arguing for the end of court-ordered busing. A U.S. District Court judge finally granted the petition in 1998.

"Can a community that believes in black achievement and high academic standards maintain that? The jury is still out," said Mr. Thornton, the chairman of Howard University's political science department, who no longer serves on the board.

One of the outstanding issues to be resolved in the coming months will be what changes and academic support are required in the schools that will be affected by the new attendance patterns.

"I can tell you that we have not done the complete educational analysis," said Edythe Flemings Hall, the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which signed on to the plan only after the district promised to renovate some of its lowest- performing high schools.

"There is a need for instructional improvements and facility improvements to be made," she cautioned.

Enrollment patterns at popular magnet schools also will be studied as a way to encourage racial diversity in the district within the neighborhood school philosophy, she added.

Ms. Hall said that the guiding principle in future discussions must be ensuring that the education of students does not suffer when they return to their neighborhood schools: "The goal is equity, not just convenience."

Vol. 20, Issue 13, Page 3

Published in Print: November 29, 2000, as Md. District Plans Return To Neighborhood Schools
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