Montgomery County's five-year-old attempt to use specialized academic programs as "magnets" to attract whit students to schools with high minority enrollments has failed, according to countyeducators and a school system evaluation.
The seven elementary schools grouped together in 1976 to form the Takoma Park Cluster and to offer magnet classes now have an average minority enrollment of 54 percent, more than double the county average of 24 percent.
Distribution of minorities among the seven schools today is more uneven than it was before the cluster was formed, ranging from 25 percent at Four Corners to 81 percent at Rolling Terrace--a spread of 56 percent. Before the cluster, that spread was 38 percent.
Enrollment in two of the schools is more than 60 percent minority, in violation of the county's racial balance guidelines. Only one-third the number of transfer students that planners said were needed to significantly alter the racial composition have entered the cluster.
The shortcomings of the county's only magnet program designed to desegregate schools take on particular significance this year as school board members and parents consider a proposal by Superintendent Edward Andrews to place a special performing arts program in Blair High School. Blair, with 59 percent minority enrollment, has the largest black student body among the county's high schools and a major purpose of the performing arts curriculum would be to attract white pupils.
Critics doubt that a performing arts magnet would be successful at Blair, charting their predictions on the cluster's history. Instead of becoming a model for desegregation, they charge, the cluster has become a bucket for schools with large enrollments of black, Hispanic and Asian children.
In particular, the critics point to recent board actions that they say indicate the school board has no interest in desegregating either the Takoma Park cluster schools or Blair. School closings and boundary changes made this year are expected to bring more minority students into the seven schools and send white students to schools outside the cluster. As many as four of the seven cluster schools will have a minority enrollment of 60 percent or more as a result of board action, according to testimony presented to a state hearing examiner last week on Montgomery parents' appeal of closing decisions.
Four Corners, which has the lowest minority enrollment in the cluster, will close at the end of this school year. Two schools, Montgomery Knolls, with a minority population of 62 percent predicted for next year, and Pine Crest, expected to have 55 percent minority pupils next year, will be added to the cluster in September.
"The whole cluster has lost its purpose as far as desegregation is concerned," says Connie Gordon, a former teacher at two of the schools and one of the primary planners of the cluster. "Instead of decreasing the percentage of minority enrollment, it seems that everything has been done to increase it.
"It's been blatantly apparent for three years that something was drastically wrong, but instead of doing anything to change it, we've only done things to make it worse."
The reasons Gordon and others cite for the failure of the Takoma Park grouping include:
Placing in the cluster too many schools with high black enrollment. Of the seven schools, four had minority enrollments above 36 percent in 1976.
Boundary changes this year will increase the number of minorities feeding into the cluster. In one case, the board voted to close Brookview Elementary and to reassign the portion of its students who live in the New Hampshire Estates area to Piney Branch Elementary, a cluster school. According to the testimony last week, 90 percent of the Brookview students assigned to Piney Branch are minority. Piney Branch Elementary already has a minority enrollment of 57 percent.
Educational programs intended to be magnets were not unusual enough to induce students to transfer and in some cases were offered in more than one cluster school.
Poor placement of programs in the schools. A Spanish bicultural program was placed in Rolling Terrace, which already had a heavy Hispanic enrollment.
An unexpected increase in the minority population in the cluster neighborhoods.
School Superintendent Edward A. Andrews said that "it is quite clear that magnet programs have not been a major factor in improving racial balance, but I don't know what (minority enrollments) would have been without the cluster. The numbers (of minorities) moving into Takoma Park have just skyrocketed."
Steven Frankel, director of the school's department of educational accountability, agrees with Andrews.
"Nobody is claiming that there's been any great improvement in the cluster" because of board actions, says Frankel. "What we are saying is that the board's action did no damage."
In particular, Frankel said that without the cluster, the school system would have expected a 4 percent increase in minority enrollment in the seven schools. With the cluster, Frankel said, the increase still will be 4 percent.
A report prepared for the board last year by the the school system's department of educational accountability went even further than Gordon in specifying the problems with the cluster.
The seven-school grouping was "probably doomed" from the start, the report states. Of the schools included in the cluster, four already had minority enrollments that were among the highest in the county and exceeded the county average by 20 percent--the federal Office of Civil Rights' definition of de facto segregation. Even if minority pupils had been distributed evenly among the seven schools, the average minority enrollment in each would have run close to 50 percent, the report concludes.
Rolling Terrace, Takoma Park, Oak View and Piney Branch all had minority pupil populations of more than 36 percent when the cluster was formed in 1976, while the county average was 16 percent. Only East Silver Spring, Highland View and Four Corners had minority enrollments below 30 percent.
"For any desegregation cluster design, the minority composition of the cluster should approximate that of the overall school district," reads the evaluation. ". . . Even if the schools within the cluster had become perfectly balanced racially by the operation of the magnet program, then all seven of the schools would have been out of compliance" with the Emergency Student Aid Act, a federal program set up to help schools desegregate. Instead, the report suggests the cluster should have included some of the 12 neighboring schools in the area that had lower minority enrollments.
This conclusion is particularly significant for the Blair High proposal. Critics of a performing arts program say that unless the school's enrollment boundaries are changed drastically to include areas where more white students live, the high school will go the way of the cluster--down the road to increased segregation.
"There is no magic in a magnet," says Roscoe Nix, head of the Montgomery County Chapter of the NAACP and a former school board member who worked on the cluster program. "This cluster has suffered because the board has willed it to suffer. . . . The magnet is not going to work in terms of racial integregation at Blair because everyone who has followed this board knows there is no commitment to making the necessary (boundary) changes for it to work."
Superintendent Andrews has proposed such a change, but earlier this year the board rejected boundary shifts and members are not expected to change their votes when the issue is considered again Tuesday. Under the boundary changes Andrews originally proposed in November, Blair's minority enrollment would have dropped from 58.6 percent to about 50 percent.
Other problems cited in the Takoma Park cluster schools include placement and choice of the types of academic programs offered as magnets. John C. Larson, author of the cluster evaluation, said some of the Takoma Park magnets "were not distinctive enough in their attractions" and in some cases were offered in more than one cluster school. For instance, although the main attraction at Piney Branch is the science program, there is also a special science teacher at Highland View. Takoma Park Elementary and Rolling Terrace both offer gifted and talented programs.
Among the "magnets" are a French immersion program at Four Corners where all classes are taught in French; a traditional closed classroom program at Highland View; all-day kindergarten and open classrooms at East Silver Spring; and a science program and open classrooms at Piney Branch. Students from East Silver Spring, which has classes only to third grade, continue at Piney Branch.
Critics of the cluster as a desegregation tool also say keeping the French immersion program at Four Corners, where it was already in place when the cluster was formed, did nothing to change the status quo. The better plan would have been to transfer the program to a school with high black enrollment, thus inducing many of the white students to follow the program, believes Four Corners Principal Gabriel Jacobs. Of the 184 students participating in the French program, only 18 students are black and 10 are other minorities, he said.