Two weeks after her daughter Paula enrolled at her neighborhood elementary school in Takoma Park-East Silver Spring this fall, Linda Bilstein decided she did not like the way the school emphasized a highly structured approach to learning.
So, after a phone call or two and filling out somes forms, Bilstein arranged a transfer for her fourth-grader to another Montgomery County public school in the area, one where open classrooms and other less traditional methods of teaching are employed.
In most any other school system - or in any other area of the county, for that matter - such a red tape-free transfer would be difficult if not impossible to arrange. But Paula Bilstein, along with about 1,800 other Takoma-East Silver Spring elementary students, are part of a unique experiment that county officials hope will make mandatory busing to attain desegregation unnecessary.
In an effort to halt a growing pattern of racial segregation just north of the District of Columbia line, Montgomery County school officials are offering parents in Takoma Park a range of educational options in the hopes that individual preferences will produce voluntary desegregation.
Beginning what they say will be a three-year experiment, school officials have designated seven schools in the Takoma Park-East Silver Spring area as "magnet schools," each with a separate and distinct educational philosophy.
By encouraging parents to transfer their children out of their neighborhood schools for another school that best expresses their own educational philosophy, officials hope to break up racial concentrations and avoid mandatory busing.
Within the last decade, blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and other minorities have moved into the neighborhood in increasing numbers and three of the schools. Takoma Park, Piney Branch and Rolling Terrace, have minority enrollments above 50 per cent.
Others range between 20 per cent and 40 per cent minority, but by promoting transfers and providing free transportation officials are hoping for a more even distribution.
"We hope to create enough movement within the (seven-school-cluster) and from outside the cluster to creat a balance," says Miriam Flam, a teacher specialist with Montgomery County's Office of Quality Integrated Education.
To encourage that movement, a range of educational options has been set up that includes: highly structured and traditional approaches, open-classroom, team-teaching and "continuous" progress techniques, a program of French language immersion in which from the first grade on all subjects as taught in French, a Spanish bilingual bicultural program and a program involving heavy parent participation.
While only 7 per cent of the students opted for transfers in the first year of the plan and racial balances were affected only slightly, officials say they are adding to the academic program at each of the seven schools and they hope by the end of the experiment to have a reasonable balance.
"We hope that as people get used to the idea of transferring and as they see other people do it, they will do it themselves," says Connie Gordon, a first grade teacher at Takoma Park and a member of the parents committee that initially conceived the magnet plan.
"Transferring can be a little scary for parents unless they see other people doing it," she adds.
The transfer from Highland View Elementary School of Paula Bilstein and her first grader brother, Alex, has gone smoothly, despite the fact that both now attend different schools and much ride a bus, according to Linda Bilstein.
"I like the idea of the open system. My children have more than one teacher. It's a little harder but they enjoy it more than the other school," said Bilstein.
Both Piney Branch where Paula attends, and East Silva Spring - Alex's school - shun formal classrooms for large open "educational suites" or "modules." At just about any time during the school day children can be found gathered around tables or sitting on the floor playing games or working.
East Silver Spring's principal Karen Neer says she has become sold on the idea of open classrooms.
"I could see where children were held back if they could do work better than their grade level," said Neer. "I was teaching forth grade and they wouldn't give me any materials beyond the fourth-grade level."
By contrast, Highland View, where open classrooms and team teaching flourished six years ago, now offers a course of study that is highly structured, stressing discipline and basic skills. Cinderblock partitions divide the once-open classrooms into self contained units.
After Highland View was designated a traditional alternative school last spring, principal Robert Dornberg, two faculty members and two parents went to Charlotte, N.C., to visit a traditional alternative school that was established there in the wake of court-ordered busing. In part, Highland View is modeled after that school.
Each child there is assigned to a single teacher and discipline is strictly enforced. "Appropriate student behavior is important to maximize good learning," says Dornberg.
At Highland View when children move from one part of the building to another they walk in a line escorted by a teacher. A child must obtain a pass to go to the bathroom.
For parents who are less than totally satisfied with either the highly structured or open classroom, nearby Takoma Park School offers a third option.
There, with a $100,000 grant from the U.S. government, officials are running an experimental program aimed at involving parents in key school policy decisions as well as the nitty gritty of day-to-day operations.
For Branda Robinson, it was the drawing card that persuaded her to take her daughter out of East Silver Spring.
"I wanted a place where I'd be welcome in the classroom," said Robinson, who spent months doing daily volunteer work for her daughter's class.
Just recently Robinson was hired as a paid classroom aide under a program that gives Takoma parents preference in hiring for a variety of jobs ranging from aides to bus drivers to building custodians.
Additionally, says principal Stephen Bedi, parents are involved in the hiring of teachers. When first grade teacher Connie Gordon was hired this fall, she had to be interviewed by two parents as well as by Bedi and his faculty.
"I'd think very seriously about it, if the parents recommended against hiring some," said Bedi.
With an enrollment that is almost 60 per cent minority - 40 per cent black and the remainder Hispanic, Asian-Americans and other ethnic minorities - Takoma Park plans to offer a special program for gifted and talented children next year in an effort to improve its racial balance.
For the linguistically-minded parents in the cluster, Four Corners Elementary School is in the fourth year of its French immersion program while Oak View and Rolling Terrace offer the Spanish language bilingual bicultural courses.
For the 120 children enrolled in the French program at Four Corners, only French is spoken in the classroom. Children are taught to read in French, not English, and they learn their math tables in French, not English.
About the only thing they do do in English, says principal Gabriel Jacobs, is take the standardized tests in basic skills that are given to children at every school in Maryland.
"They do as well or better in just about every subject as the children not enrolled in the French program," said Jacobs. "And they also become fluent in French.
One of less than a dozen language immersion programs in the United States, the program at Four Corners is modeled after similar programs in Canada. Research there showed that English speaking children were able to become fluent in French by becoming fully immersed in the language in a classroom situation. At the same time their English language skills did not suffer.
Unlike the French program at Four Corners, the Spanish programs at Oak View and Rolling Terrace began not as an effort to teach a new language but to preserve an old one.
Mercedes DiLima, a native of Cuba and now a Spanish teacher at Rolling Terrace, was instrumental in starting the program, essentially because she was afraid her children would forget their native language.
"Our language is our heritage. It is who we are and I want my children to be proud of it," said Dilima. "I do not want them to lose it."
With a minority enrollment of 53.1 per cent, Rolling Terrace includes significant numbers of blacks, Asian Americans and Hispanics as well as whites. Virtually all receive some kind of bilingual bicultural instruction, which consists of one or two class periods a day.