On the surface, life at the Ritchie and Oakcrest elementary schools in Prince George's County seems about the same this October.
The halls and rooms are decorated with scalloped cardboard pumpkins, and the colors of fall camouflage the walls. Principle pat 6-year-olds on the head, and youngsters yelp and throw things at lunch time. Teachers shiver on the sidelines during recess while children frolic outdoors.
But this school year is different. A proposed school consolidation would close Ritchie and disperse its 400 pupils to three other elementary schools. More than a third of them -- a total of 159 -- would be transferred to Oakcrest Elementary in Landover.
Speakers at a recent hearing vehemently opposed the plan. Many of the approximately 70 parents who attended the hearing voiced concern that their children would be going to an inferior physical plant and poorer academic programs at Oakcrest.
According to Oakcrest and Ritchie principals James L. Chase and Joseph Morgan, the parents' fears are largely unfounded. Both men attributed much of the parental concern to "fear of the unknown."
Nevertheless, some parents expect the worst. Brenda Johnson, whose son attends Ritchie, declared that if the school is closed, she will send him to a private school no matter what the cost.
"I will not eat -- and he won't go to Oakcrest," she said.
The school board will hear final arguements tonight against the plan, which calls for closing Ritchie and renovating the building for use as a facility for handicapped children. The renovated school would become part of the H. Winship Wheatly special education center, which is adjacent to Ritchie.
The proposed closing is the first of what could be as many as 20 or 30 over the next five years due to declining enrollment and budget pressures caused by TRIM, the limitation on property tax revenues approved by county residents in 1978.
The distressed parents, most of whom live in the Centennial Village development in Forrestville, argued that their children would suffer from a move to Oakcrest. Many of the students had been transferred to Ritchie after the Randolph Village school on Central Avenue was closed in 1979.
Cynthia Harrod, who is in charge of accounting for the Navy Recruiting Command in Arlington, said she heard about Oakcrest from friends who pulled their children out of the school and put them in private school because of what they felt were problems at Oakcrest. Harrod said she visited the school herself, once.
"I went down. Their facility is not as good, but that doesn't bother me," said the mother of three. "I looked at one class and it seemed like the children were running the class."
Oakcrest Principal Chase takes the charges against his school in diplomatic stride. A tall man who looks 10 years younger than his 43 years. Chase got his first assignment as a principal at age 23 and has been a principal in Prince George's County for 13 years.
He believes the parental concerns are exaggerated but acknowledges that the children affected by the change "have been to two or three schools. They [the parents] are afraid that Oakcrest may be closed down in the next two or three years."
He said that while Oakcrest does not have a gym, forcing students to use the cafeteria for recess and physical education in bad weather, it does have air conditioning and a "media center" or library, two facilities that some parents apparently believe are not present at Oakcrest.
The hallways seem empty and a little dim, however. This year's modification of the busing plan left the school, which has a capacity of 570 students, with less than half of its classroom space in use. Chase pointed out several classes in which two grades were combined, a practice increasingly common in the county's under-enrolled schools. Eight classrooms are not used at all.
In the rooms still in use, children were quietly reading assignments, and answering questions and taking tests.
According to school board member Bonnie Johns, whose district includes Oakcrest, the transferring students from Ritchie may boost Oakcrest's chances of getting more resources.
". . . Once . . . enrollment goes up, [the school principal] can demand more staffing," said Johns.
More than half the Oakcrest pupils walk to school from part of a nearby Seat Pleasant neighborhood; the remainder take a bus from Berwyn Heights. The 159 transferring students would be bused from several developments, all south of Central Avenue or well east of Hill Road. Like all Ritchie students, they now ride a schoolbus every morning because the school is surrounded by an industrial area that is bordered by truck-filled Ritchie Road.
Many Ritchie parents are full of praise for the school.
"My son opened up when he came out here," said Brenda Johnson. "Anytime you hear a kid say, "I can't wait till Monday,' so he can go to school, that 's something."
Ritchie is made up of five pod-like wings, each connected by a hall and radiating in different directions. Sunlight streams into the main corridors of the school. Many of the rooms are carpeted and one green-carpeted hall is completely lined with plants, giving it a bright and airy feeling.
Like most other principals threatened with the loss of a school, Morgan is a good soldier about the proposed closing.
We're a countywide system," he said. "What we do here we're going to do for all students in the county. We want them to get the best possible education they can."
Ritchie Principal Chase echoed Morgan's feelings and said he welcomed parents who fight for their children's education.