When Barbara Williams' three children go off to school in the fall, they could head in three separate directions to three different elementary schools.

Such a split is nothing new for parents like Williams who live in the area of Silver Spring around New Hampshire Estates Elementary school. Since 1977, when the school became preschool through third grade, and as a result of the large number of minorities there, officials have sent students beginning with fourth graders to five different county schools. Some children have attended three different elementary schools for grades 4-6.

New Hampshire Estates parents say this year, they have had enough. They are tired of being the tool by which the school system adjusts racial percentages at other schools, they say. They say the school board must make a permanent decision about New Hampshire Estates, whose minority enrollment of 83 percent is the highest of any county school.

"It's like the military, we never know where we're going to be next," says Williams, who has a fourth grader at Piney Branch, a child expected to enroll in preschool next year at New Hampshire Estates, and a third grader now at New Hamphire Estates who as of this week has no school assignment for fourth grade.

Last year's school board sent New Hampshire Estates students to Highland View and Piney Branch elementaries. This year's seven-member board, with four new members, began to review those assignments last week after it became clear that the new pairing had exacerbated an already imbalanced racial enrollment at the two schools. The board is scheduled to take up the assignments again tonight.

"At this point we don't care where we are assigned, we just want a permanent solution," said Elena Hutchinson, president of the New Hampshire Estates PTA. "They have tried us one way and another just to make the numbers look good. We're tired of being pushed around . . . We want the board to make a decision that either we decide to live with the high minority level at our school and give us the money we need to keep it going, or we bus farther."

School officials agree with Williams and Hutchinson that this is a critical year for New Hampshire Estates. The board's decision, they add, may provide an important glimpse into how it will deal with schools in similar situations as the lower county receives increasingly larger populations of blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

Already, minority enrollments at several elementary schools in lower Silver Spring exceed 50 percent. The county-wide average is 25.4 percent. School planners predict that in five years, the county will have to reach far beyond the Beltway and Silver Spring to find schools with minority enrollments low enough to reduce racial imbalance in the lower-county area.

Will the board, as Hutchinson asks, begin busing students farther distances? Or will it allow minority enrollments to remain high while spending more money at those schools to improve educational programs?

The difficulty of finding a long-term solution was demonstrated last week during two nights of hearings. During those meetings, board members discussed three separate plans that would have ultimately sent New Hampshire Estates students to three different high schools. All three plans were characterized by school planners as seriously affecting minority imbalance in the area.

Under one plan, for example, students would attend Cannon Road Elementary for grades 4-6. Cannon, five miles from New Hampshire Estates, has a minority enrollment of 35 percent. But planners said that sending students to Cannon, which feeds into Springbrook High School, would result in problems later at Springbrook.