By Liza MundyTwo girls, one sunbaked playground. Behind them, the shimmering pink expanse of a newly constructed schoolhouse. Above them, the endless afternoon sky. One of the girls, 11 years old, is sitting. The other, also 11, is bouncing in a dusty patch of grass, laughing so hard that the laughter sometimes makes her stretch high above her head, sometimes compels her to collapse into herself for a moment of private hilarity.
Kendra Langley is the girl who is laughing not just laughing but leaping and jumping, practicing cheers for a basketball team that doesn't exist but will soon. That there is currently no team to cheer for doesn't matter. What matters is that it's recess a rare, extended recess! and that all around she can see houses and trees and streets that are intimately familiar. For the first time Kendra is going to school in her own neighborhood, a school where she is surrounded by classmates who are comfortable and somehow how to put this? known. This, for Kendra, is what matters, being part of a new group of students, all of them learning cheers from their sixth-grade social studies teacher, all of them, as it happens, black.
"We want a basket!"
The girl who is sitting is TaKea Marshall. Squinting into the afternoon brightness, she watches as Kendra and others in the new sixth-grade class at Highland Park Elementary learn their unison cheer. Last year, TaKea and Kendra both got on a bus every morning, riding away from their homes in the Landover area of Prince George's County and alighting half an hour later at a racially integrated school in the outer suburb of Bowie. TaKea unlike Kendra loved the school where they were bused. At this moment, so uncertain is she in her new environment, she cannot bring herself to stand up and learn the cheers.
"I don't know," she says, watching as Kendra and the other girls bounce and clap, perfectly synchronized, perfectly happy. "It's just not me."
"We want a basket!"
The end of one momentous, difficult, emotionally fraught national experiment.
The beginning of an entirely new one.
* * * *
Kendra Langley walked to school on August 30, the day that Highland Park, and two schools like it, opened to signal the end of court-ordered busing in Prince George's County. The walk Kendra made was a small act in and of itself: Less than five minutes was all it took to say goodbye to her cat, C.J., bang out the kitchen door, make her way down the street and onto Highland Park's freshly poured driveway. Once inside, she continued past the fancy new television studio and state-of-the-art library; past the computer lab and the landscaped central courtyard; past the sixth-grade classroom into which TaKea Marshall was settling; and into the other sixth-grade classroom, where she would become part of Highland Park's first graduating class of the post-busing era.
A small act, but infinitely significant.
"The whole concept of returning to community and neighborhood schools is just about the best thing that could happen," said Prince George's County School Superintendent Iris Metts when she showed up to celebrate Highland Park's opening day.
Which was, in fact, a reopening day. Twenty-seven years ago, in January 1973, Highland Park, a black school proudly serving a number of nearby neighborhoods, was summarily shuttered, its lights turned off and its students bused away for the sake of integration and progress. This occurred because a federal judge openly angered by the county's refusal to dismantle its rigidly segregated school system ruled that there was only one way to get the school board to proceed with desegregation, which for almost 20 years had been the law of the land. That way, of course, was busing.
Bused. Busing. To be bused. To have been bused. Never to be bused again. There are few words in our language so emotionally loaded, so full of social significance. In fact, busing has always evoked a reaction far in excess of its immediate, practical impact. In 1973, when busing began, 33,000 of Prince George's 163,000 students were transferred from their neighborhood schools; of these only 12,000 had, until then, been in the habit of walking to school. Similarly, by 1996 most kids were riding buses, but fewer than 12,000 of them were doing so as a direct result of the court order. In other words, schoolchildren rode buses before busing began, and schoolchildren will ride buses now that it's over.
Even so, there is enormous importance to the end of court-ordered busing, the means by which many schools in this country were at long last integrated. Prince George's is one of several American school districts where busing was made famous and is now, famously, ending. Busing along with other desegregation measures is also being phased out in Charlotte, N.C., which is the place where busing started; in Kansas City, in Boston, in Buffalo and Minneapolis and Mobile, Ala., and Jacksonville, Fla. As a result of this and other demographic trends namely white flight the levels of integration achieved in the 1970s and '80s are receding in many parts of the country. This has happened in Prince George's. But what's also significant is that whereas in other jurisdictions it has been white parents who pushed for the end to busing, in Prince George's this was sought by the county's newly empowered black leadership.
To do so, the county has had to persuade the courts to take a new view of predominantly black schools. Since 1954, when the Supreme Court ordered the nation's schools desegregated in Brown v. Board of Education, the prevailing notion has been that all-black classrooms are suspect by their very nature: "To separate [black students] . . . generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone," is how the court put it in its historic rejection of the separate but equal doctrine. It was a notion that some blacks found problematic even then. "My kid didn't have to sit next to a white kid to get a good education," is how Barbara Martin, a longtime Highland Park resident, puts it. Others, such as Sylvester Vaughns, one of the Prince George's parents who filed the lawsuit that led to the court-ordered busing, argued that the point wasn't to sit next to white children but to gain access to their clearly superior resources.
But now, the county argues, black classrooms should be reconsidered; what's important now is not integration per se, but providing the money and resources to help black children learn, and ensuring that blacks are in positions of power. Since 1973, the demographics of the school system have changed along with those of the county, to the point where the student population of Prince George's has gone from being 20 percent black to nearly 80 percent black. The chairman of the school board is black; the superintendent is black; the county executive is black; this alone, the board points out, is proof that Prince George's is no longer discriminating against black children by putting them in schools that are all black, or virtually so. In a sense, the end of busing in Prince George's is simply a recognition of reality. But county officials have also seized the opportunity to make it a point of pride.
Which is not to say that the county's black leadership believes busing was a mistake. Former school board chairman Alvin Thornton, chair of Howard University's political science department, points out that busing enabled some of Maryland's future black and white political leaders to begin a lifelong dialogue. Superintendent Metts considers that busing literally changed her life. "I'm trying to remember when I became a middle-class person," she said in an interview. "I'm not sure that would have happened without busing."
Even so, she thinks that times have changed, and changing times present new challenges. "We've been stigmatized by the concept that when a system is predominantly African American or predominantly minority, that it can't be an excellent system. Americans need to wake up and get a grip and know that that's not true."
But what is a community school? And what is a community? When it closed, Highland Park served three old, distinct, mostly middle-class neighborhoods; since then, the inside-the-Beltway region it serves has become even more densely populated, with everything from garden apartments to closely packed town house developments to some single-family homes costing $200,000 and upward. The white families that used to live in nearby neighborhoods have left entirely, which resulted in Highland Park's reopening predominantly black. But within that one-raceness is enormous disparity, enormous diversity, a diversity not only of income but of outlook and opinion opinions about what constitutes community; about which is better, separatism or assimilation; about how, even in this new era, to think about a virtually all-black school.
In one sense, these opinions are expressed privately, sometimes not even voiced. Over the summer, when Highland Park was preparing to open, Principal Tujuana White awash in the complicated task of opening a rebuilt school, a task in which the day's mail might bring, say, a lone piano pedal, or the order form necessary to obtain order forms said that among the many concerns expressed by parents about the school's reopening, the school's racial makeup wasn't one of them. "No one has said, `I'm glad I'm back with students of my own race.' And no one has said, `I want to leave my kids in schools that will be integrated.' "
Independently, however, several parents did frame their ideas in explicitly racial terms. "Nothing against black people, but too much is too much," said Warren Wells, pausing in the parking lot after back-to-school night to say that he preferred the situation last year, when his daughter Jennifer was bused to a neighborhood he felt was safer. Others went further. Kay Britt took her grandson out of the public school system when she learned that he would no longer be bused. "To me, it just feels like we're being pushed back, as opposed to moving forward. I just felt like we were being shafted."
It's hard to overstate the elation of other parents. "I can look out the window and say, `I love you!' " Chermayne Jones exclaimed, ecstatic to have her fifth-grader, Gabrielle, close to home. "This is going to be the best school!" said another parent, June Clark, on opening day.
The new PTA president, Trevor Gray, stood in the parking lot articulating what is the central hope for community schools: that, in addition to preparing children for adulthood as well as integrated schools can, they will revitalize black neighborhoods, help bring citizens together. "If I see your son throwing trash on the sidewalk, I can tell him, `Look, son, I know your mother. Pick up that trash.' "
Around him were parents who knew all too well what the exile of busing had been like: parents like Frances Gross, who remembers white people standing with signs telling her to go home when she was bused to Bowie High; parents like Joanne Corum, who remembers being introduced to soccer, and to track, but also to white girls who, when she asked why they wouldn't play with her, said, "Because you are black. Because we can't."
In fact, one of the most striking things about Highland Park on opening day was how the parents themselves presented a living, moving history of busing. Those memories were deep and varied and rich with ambivalence as they came through the parking lot, on foot but mostly in cars, making their way onto the sidewalk and into the crowded halls. From there the kids themselves would play out the same debate in a new context, a debate that's illuminated perhaps most clearly in the dual and steadily evolving experiences of Kendra Langley and TaKea Marshall.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company