When Denise Miller decided she wanted to go to a French restaurant to celebrate her eighth birthday, she called and made the reservations herself - in fluent French.
Denise, the Daughter of English-speaking parents, greeted the French waiters in their native tongue, aided her parents in reading the menu and ordered the meal in French.
"I found myself catching my breath, thinking 'Could this be my child, so comfortable with French?'" recalled Denise's mother Rosemary Miller. "It's a very exciting thing to watch happen to your daughter."
Denise, now a fifth grader, is one of 140 students enrolled in a French immersion program at Four Corners Elementary School in Silver Springs, where all academic subjects are taught in French. The program is the unique attraction at Four Corners, one of seven "magnet schools" grouped into the Takoma Park cluster as part of a plan to achieve desegregation without mandatory busing.
In an effort to halt a growing pattern of racial segregation in the down country area, the Montgomery County school board in 1976 ordered the desegregation of the eight elementary schools in the Rosemary Hills cluster just north of the District line. Desegregation was accompanied by mandatory busing.
To avoid forced busing in the Takoma Park cluster, parents were offered a range of educational options in the hope that individual preferences would produce voluntary desegregation.
Last year, school officials designated each Takoma Park cluster school a "magnet school," offering its own separate and distinct educational philosophy. For example, students progress at their own rate in the open classroom atmosphere of East Silver Spring Primary and Piney Branch Middle Schools, while students at Highland View Elementary School work in a highly structured, more traditional setting.
Oak View and Rolling Terrace offer Spanish bicultural studies, Four Corners features French immersion and Takoma Park has a "gifted and talented" program plus a $100,000-a-year federal grant to involve parents in school operations.
All students are assigned to a school based upon where they live, but parents may send their children to one of the other schools in the cluster, with transportation provided, if the transfer would improve the overall racial balance. To learn about each school, parents were invited to a cluster demonstration program and to a week-long school open house.
In the program's first year 179 of the cluster students transferred, and this year 103 students transferred. About 12 percent of the cluster's approximately 2,400 students, or one out of eight, are now attending a school other than their neighborhood school.
During the first year, minority enrollment increased at five of the seven schools. While minority percentages had ranged from 20.5 percent to 57.4 percent in 1976, projected 1978 enrollments show minority enrollment ranging from 25.3 percent to 57.1 percent.
"Before the cluster was a cluster, people didn't know what existed outside their schools," noted cluster chairwoman Connie Gordon. "I'm delighted with the way it's working - people seem to be taking advantage of the choices."
"I was apprehensive at first, but I think it's a wonderful program," noted Edith Brailey, who said she transferred her daughter to Four Corners for its French program and to help boost minority enrollment at the school.
"Since we live in a community with a lot of Spanish-speaking people, the bilingual Spanish program at Rolling Terrace gives our son a better avenue to be a part of our neighborhood," said Mary Ann Ryan. "I feel the cluster is a very pleasant way to conform to the idea of racially mixing schools without pressure or twisting arms."
East Silver Spring parent Mary Clifford said that she sent her son to the closest school with the idea that if it didn't work out she would try to transfer him. "But I found out it work very, very well," noted Clifford, who said that since her son's ability levels vary in each subject, the school's "continuous progress" emphasis allows him to learn at his own speed.
The same open-classroom setting gave 11-year-old Jimmy Mail headaches, however, so his parents transferred him to the structured program at Highland View.
"My children operate better there," said Jimmy's father Alan Mail, who although appreciating the opportunity to choose among magnet schools, sees the cluster concept as "a sorry commentary, indicating that they don't know what works as far as educating children."
Jorge Ribas, who said he transferred his children to Oak View [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Spanish program, also criticized the cluster operation. "The school was advertised heavily as bilingual," said Ribas. He discovered later that the program was actually "bicultural." While Spanish was taught, the program did not fulfill what he felt had been promised. "The education the children received was at best marginal," said Ribas. Despite his disappointment, he is keeping his children at Oak View because a new principal has promised many changes.
Some parents, who had been enthusiastic at first, were turned off last spring when their children's applications to transfer were denied. Although all transfers were approved in the program's first year, fifty were denied this year, mostly to majority students whose transfer would adversely affect racial balance.
"We really thought we had a choice and spent time visiting each school," said one white parent whose child's transfer request was denied. "But the whole thing is based on race, so the fact is we didn't have a choice and could have saved ourselves all that trouble."
"Basically, the idea is to encourage transfers to maintain the racial balance within the cluster," said area associate superintendent Harry Pit, who noted that transfers during the first year were approved because they aided integration. The second year presented "a more critical problem" since the schools' racial balance had begun to stabilize.
"There is not absolute freedom of movement," admitted Pitt, who said he considers the program "a tremendous success. I'm impressed with the educational effort we're making and with the tremendous support of the community."