Pr. George's Schools Set To Redraw Boundaries

The proposed changes in attendance boundaries are a hot topic in Prince George's. Waiting on a Bowie bus are Andrea Hercules, from left, Dawn and Malcolm Alexander, Jean Caraway and Micah and Malachi Alexander.
The proposed changes in attendance boundaries are a hot topic in Prince George's. Waiting on a Bowie bus are Andrea Hercules, from left, Dawn and Malcolm Alexander, Jean Caraway and Micah and Malachi Alexander. (Photos By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Thousands of Prince George's students are on track to switch schools in August as the school system expands campuses and shrinks cross-county busing in its years-long journey away from racial integration plans and back to neighborhood schools.

The county school board is expected to approve a new school boundary map Thursday that builds on a decision last year to curtail magnet programs that bus students to distant schools. Under the plan, officials calculate, 97 percent of Prince George's students would be eligible to attend neighborhood schools in the coming year. Among them are five new and refurbished campuses from Bowie to Bladensburg.

The plan would punctuate a long transition -- unique to Washington-area school systems -- seven years after a federal judge ended a quarter-century of mandatory school desegregation.

In a fast-growing region where many counties redraw school boundaries annually to keep pace with home builders, the latest Prince George's revisions stand out. They show substantial school policy shifts and economic tensions in the majority-black county.

Alvin Thornton, a Howard University political scientist and former Prince George's school board chairman, said school officials must redouble efforts to improve schools near low-income families.

"The school boundaries will begin to reflect the enclaves of differences -- social class differences -- in the county," Thornton said. "Children who have less will be consigned to schools and communities that have less."

Richard Kahlenberg, an education researcher at the Century Foundation in Washington who has studied economic issues in school populations, said: "Race is no longer the key question. If you're looking at academic achievement, it's the socio-economic status of classmates that matters more."

He said studies show that schools serving middle- and higher-income populations tend to attract better teachers and more active parents, fueling a low-income achievement gap. As a result, he said, about a dozen school districts across the country have launched "economic integration" plans to ensure mixed-class student populations.

In Prince George's, many parents applaud the back-to-neighborhoods movement. But not all.

Andrea and Othneil Hercules moved last year from Suitland to a better-off subdivision in western Bowie, spending nearly $300,000 on a four-bedroom house. They expected that their sons would be able to attend well-regarded Bowie schools. Now they are being told that 12-year-old Othneil Jr. would be assigned to Thomas Johnson Middle School in nearby Lanham. His current school is Benjamin Tasker Middle School, further to the east in Bowie. His brother, Andrew, 8, would follow him.

Tasker has higher standardized test scores than Johnson and a more racially diverse and affluent student population. The prospect of a switch rankles the family. Othneil Sr., 39, is a U.S. customs inspector. Andrea, 38, is a contract administrator for an information technology company. Both are African American.

"You spend a lot of money. You work hard as parents to be able to buy a home for your children," Andrea Hercules said. "We bought based on the area and based on the schools. This is a step backwards."


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