Like thousands of other parents in the Washington area, Karen Gillette waged a losing battle to save her neighborhood school.
When the Prince George's County school board decided last spring that 44 schools should be closed because of declining enrollments, Parkway Elementary in Hyattsville, where two of her children were enrolled, was one of them. Gillette did not give up.
She joined with parents from 12 other schools and sued the county school board to postpone the closings. That suit lost, but now she and other parents feel there is hope again for their schools because of a new -- and, in some ways unlikely, ally -- the NAACP.
A major contention of the suit the civil rights organization has filed against the Prince George's County school board is that the board did not take advantage of the school closings to maintain a fully desegregated system. Last week it succeeded in persuading U.S. District Judge Frank Kaufman to sign an order temporarily barring the county from selling 15 closed schools because they may be necessary if the result of the suit is a new busing plan.
For Gillette's coalition, it was a significant development, since six of the 13 schools the group is seeking to reopen were on the list agreed upon by lawyers from both sides. While the circumstances surrounding the closing of each of the 13 schools are unique, Gillette and other parents feel their schools were well integrated community schools, the kind that that would be saved if the school board had considered integration as a factor in school closings.
School board members and school officials say that in looking to the NAACP suit for hope the parents are clutching at straws. They maintain that the school system will not be found in need of a new desegregation plan when Kaufman decides the case early next year -- and if it is, there is no particular reason why any of the 13 schools would be essential to it.
"I think the initial decision was right," said board member Catherine Burch about the closing of Parkway. "It's a small school, the kids are better off at Ridgecrest (a nearby elementary school that took Parkway's enrollment this year). I don't know how the injunction will affect that -- I don't think it will," she added.
Indeed Parkway was one of the smallest and oldest elementary schools in the system, putting two strikes against it according to the six evaluation criteria developed by the school staff for closing schools, but to Gillette it was a school where all the teachers knew all the children before they even reached their classrooms.
Parkway was 49 percent black, drawing from the surrounding racially mixed neighborhod. Ridgecrest Elementary, the Gillette's new school, is 68 percent black.
"They want blacks and whites to learn together . . . well, they were 49 and 51 (percent) here," said Gillette. "You can't get much better than that in Prince George's County."
In a county where school issues frequently have been fought along racial lines, the school closing issue has brought together both the NAACP and a number of integrated community groups such as Gillette's in a coalition that probably would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.
It was Gillette who made the first call to seek the counsel of the NAACP.
"I couldn't believe I was doing it," she recalls, "but I was so frustrated. I figured that the NAACP had a bigger name than we did. I found myself dialing and my hands were shaking."
While the groups found they had similar goals, they agreed not to formally join forces. Marolyn Lassiter, a spokesman for the group, was one of the few spectators at the early hearings on the desegregation suit in Baltimore. She sat side by side with NAACP board member Florence Rosser.
"I hope the NAACP wins," said Lassiter whose neighborhood school, Andrews Air Force Base Elementary is set for closing next year and is not included in the court order. "I think at this point it is the only thing that will wake the county up."
According to Lassiter, lawyers for the coalition are studying a possible appeal to the state board of education on behalf of their schools. Last week a separate group of parents fighting to reopen tiny Accokeek Elementary won the right to such a hearing over the opposition of school lawyer Paul Nussbaum.
"In the beginning a lot of us were gung ho," said Gillette, noting that the coalition treasury is down to $700 compared to the $5,000 they raised the first month of their fight. "It kind of petered out when they thought that we were beating our heads against a wall. But some of us are more stubborn than others . . . "