Two generations of Kensington Elementary School students gathered for a reunion one night last week: a small group of seven mothers who attended the school years ago and their children, who are pupils there today.
It was an impromptu get-together, a chance for alumni to reminisce with veteran teacher Winifred Del Vecchio and for their children to rummage through class photos of their parents from the 1950s.
But there was more to this meeting than memories. The reunion was organized so that Kensington parent Keith Gamboa could snap pictures for an elaborate slide show the PTA will present to the Montgomery County Board of Education Monday in an effort to convince the board not to close the school.
That same evening, about a mile away, another group of parents huddled in a living room to plot the strategy for saving their school. They were from Parkwood Elementary and they also will present their case to the school board Monday, as the board evaluates which of the two Kensington area schools should be shut this spring.
Kensington, at 10400 Detrick Ave., and Parkwood, at 4710 Saul Rd., are pitted against each other in a typically emotional school closing battle, a fight that is seriously straining community bonds. Each side is dreaming up persuasive devices, like Kensington's sentimental reunion, in a test of imagination and tenacity as they struggle to stay alive.
The two schools are the last to be considered for closing and consolidation in Montgomery County this school year. The board is scheduled to vote on the issue March 9--the final act of the school closing drama that played for several weeks last fall.
The board has decided to shut 27 schools in the next three years because of dwindling enrollments. Kensington was on the proposed "hit list," but in late November, Kensington parents convinced the board to consider closing Parkwood instead of Kensington.
"The case that Kensington made was such that it made me believe that I didn't have all the facts," said board member Carol Wallace, one of four members who voted to delay the verdict until advocates for both schools could appear at a hearing next week.
Board member Blair Ewing, who also voted to call in Parkwood, said the proposal before the board in November "was fundamentally flawed because it only gave us one option: to close Kensington and merge it into Parkwood. I argued that the board ought to have a choice."
Kenneth Muir, spokesman for the county schools, said Parkwood originally was not a candidate because it met fewer of the board's criteria for closing than Kensington did. Parkwood also was not considered at first for a merger with Kensington because the two schools, while only a mile apart, send their graduates to different high schools, Muir said, and the board usually considers consolidations only within the same high school cluster.
As Kensington and Parkwood partisans prepare their arguments, the major issues in the debate are a gymnasium, handicapped students and history.
Kensington has a modern gym, constructed when the 32-year-old school was remodeled in 1975. The school counts the gymnasium as a major asset. But Parkwood supporters, who do not have a gym at their school, say it should not be a point in Kensington's favor.
"We think a gym is nice, but we don't think it's essential to elementary school children," said Judy Ackerman, president of the Parkwood PTA. Instead, Parkwood supporters argue that their school, with 9.9 acres compared to Kensington's 3.9 acres, has more space for playing fields. They also have suggested that Kensington's gym may make the school more marketable for another use if it is closed.
Patricia McGucken, president of the Kensington PTA, said the gym is especially valuable for Kensington's special education students, a group that has become a central focus of their arguments.
Kensington is one of four satellite programs in the Montgomery school system in which moderately retarded children attend special classes and are also mainstreamed into regular classes. Seventeen handicapped children, several with Down's syndrome, attend Kensington, spending part of their day in special classrooms and joining other students for reading, math, art and speech lessons according to their abilities.
"What a tragedy it would be if we were closed," McGucken told a television audience last week when she and other Kensington parents appeared on a local program to discuss the school's mainstreaming.
Although Muir said the school system's philosophy is that educational programs can be transplanted to other buildings, parents of handicapped students say they are worried their children would not be as readily accepted at a new school. And McGucken claims the special education program works well at Kensington because the school's proximity to the town business district lets students walk to shops and learn about handling money.
Parkwood has special education classes too, which Principal Beverly Harmon says are equally well-respected. Parkwood proponents also say their school is more accessible to physically handicapped students because more classrooms are located on the ground floor.
Both schools are about 30 years old, but Kensington claims a special history because its site has been used for an elementary school with the same name since 1914. The school's boosters have called on the local historical society and Kensington Mayor Jayne Plank to testify on the school's historic value. The reunion staged last week was part of the effort to convince the board that the school has a tradition worth saving.
Some Parkwood backers scoff at Kensington's contention that the school's history is a reason for staying open, arguing that the quality of the building should be the overriding concern. They also say Plank's favoritism toward Kensington Elementary, which is within the municipal boundaries, has alienated residents in the Parkwood subdivision, which is just outside the town limits but uses a Kensington mailing address.
"The Parkwood School . . . is every bit as much a part of the Kensington community as is Kensington Elementary," Parkwood parent Myron Waldman said in a letter to Plank. "Please don't split your community into warring camps and make us feel like unwanted strangers in our home town."
As the hearing date approaches, each community is bombarding school board members with letters, postcards, Mailgrams and petitions. While each school is compiling fact-laden documents for the board, their styles are very different in some ways.
Kensington parents are taking a high profile: appearing on television, recruiting state politicians to speak on their behalf and wearing saucer-sized buttons with their "Kensington Elementary--The Best in Town" motto.
"We think that's a way to let the board hear us because there have been so many schools up for closing," McGucken said. "We think we have a unique story to tell."
Parkwood's Ackerman said the "most dramatic thing" her group has done is carve a snow sculpture on the school's lawn, spelling the words "Fair Play for Parkwood."
Ackerman is tight-lipped about tactics, saying that she does not want to publicly air the issues before going to the board Monday. She said a confrontation between the two schools may hurt the children and "whatever happens, the two communities will have to live together."
McGucken takes the same approach, admitting that Parkwood partisans may feel ill will toward Kensington because "they think we hit them below the belt" when Kensington parents pushed last fall for a Parkwood closing. She said Kensington has "tried to keep the olive branch extended (because) in the end we're all going to be together.
"We're sorry, very sorry, school has to be pitted against school," McGucken said. "But in this current process, that's the way it has to be."