Every weekday morning, a small crowd of children waits impatiently at the corner of 22nd and Pollard streets in South Arlington for a yellow school bus that will take them for a bumpy, 25-minute ride in stop-and-go traffic. They will bypass 16 other elementary schools before they reach Jamestown School in an affluent white neighborhood at the tip of Northern Arlington.
The children attend Jamestown rather than one of the schools nearer to their homes not because their parents want them to; most of them don't. The busing, a one-way plan that transports hundreds of children from two predominantly black South Arlington neighborhoods to Jamestown and other elementary schools, is mandated by the county's decade-old local desegregation plan.
Not formally studied since it was approved and implemented in 1971--over the objections of black parents--the plan increasingly is being criticized by black leaders who say it unfairly puts the "burden of desegregation" on the backs of black children in the county's Nauck-Green Valley and Arlington View neighorhoods. Recently added to their criticisms is the charge that the busing plan no longer suits the needs of a county vastly different from the one in which it was adopted.
The plan works "not at all in my estimation," says School Board Chairman Evelyn Reid Syphax, a black who is challenging the plan's validity. "The demographics have changed in our county. I mean drastically."
Arlington's population diversified sharply in the 1970s with the influx of Asian and Hispanic immigrants whose children now make up about 23 percent of the school population. Black leaders question why many of these children, despite court decisions abolishing "separate but equal" education on the basis of race or national origin, are allowed to be concentrated in neighborhood schools like Key and Glencarlyn elementaries.
"They don't bus them out," said Robert McGregor, a member of the Arlington NAACP. "And they don't bus white kids in to make up the racial balance."
Today, with Arlington in the midst of closing some schools and redefining attendance boundaries because of declining enrollments, Syphax is trying to amend the plan, which addressed only elementary school desegregation. (Arlington's secondary schools were desegregated in 1965 with the busing of many black teen-agers out of South Arlington.)
She plans to submit a proposal to the school board on April 21 that would shorten the bus rides for some South Arlington children by sending kindergarten through third-grade pupils from the area, also known as Drew and Hoffman-Boston, to schools in the southern half of the county.
That is likely to trouble some parents and black leaders who are concerned that altering the desegregation plan could upset the current racial balance in the system. Their fear? Resegregation.
"We definitely don't want to get back to all black schools," says William Butler, president of the Arlington NAACP. " Busing is a necessary evil."
Syphax says her plan would maintain Arlington's racial balance. "We can have integration without long-distance busing," she says. "I wouldn't do anything to even hint at resegregation."
Others approve of a total return to neighborhood schools, even if it means creating predominantly black schools. " In 1971 it was better to be bused than to be in a segregated school with second-class equipment," McGregor says. "But now the schools are all good."
Butler, the NAACP president, approves of a compromise: "The same time we know busing is essential, we still don't want an overabundance of it."
South Arlington's black youngsters are not the only students being bused in the county. While most of Arlington's students walk to neighborhood schools, about 33 percent of them ride buses when distance or assuring their safety across busy intersections make it necessary. Other students are bused to Arlington's model or alternative schools from neighborhoods throughout the county.
Black leaders, however, contend that those students are bused by choice, a luxury the Drew and Hoffman-Boston children don't have. "It the busing doesn't even out," Butler says.
About 700 youngsters were first bused out of South Arlington in September 1971. Drew, the all-black neighborhood elementary school and an anchor in the community, was closed and turned into a magnet school for students from all over the county.
Black parents had insisted on reciprocal busing of white students and sued the county in federal court to block the plan. U.S. District Court Judge Oren Lewis rejected their complaint, ruled that the plan was not "invidiously" unfair and approved it.
"We felt blacks could be proportionately bused out and white students proportionately bused in," recalls Butler, who was also president of the local NAACP then. "They didn't see it that way. White parents would move out rather than have their children subjected to the black environment." The argument that white students be bused to achieve integration has rarely resurfaced in Arlington.
Apparently no one has studied the plan since then, assessed its effectiveness or made adjustments, either. Lewis' decree did not keep the plan under court review, as many federal desegregation decisions have. Current figures on the number of South Arlington children currently bused for integration were unavailable.
"You know people say, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it?' " Syphax said recently. "There weren't many people who thought the plan was broken, except a small minority from the black community without much influence."
In the years since the plan was first implemented, many black residents have moved into neighborhoods throughout the county. Black leaders say that this makes the busing for integration of students in neighborhoods targeted 12 years ago inappropriate.
Meanwhile, they note the increase of Asian and Hispanic students at some schools. At Key School the largest number of students is Hispanic, comprising 39 percent of the enrollment although they make up only 9 percent of the entire school system's student body. At Glencarlyn School, Asians account for 53 percent of the student body while comprising 14 percent of the system's enrollment.
School operations director Henry Gardner says his staff has not considered the Asian and Hispanic concentration in either school in the county's current school consolidation study.
Some civil rights lawyers say racial concentrations like the ones at Key and Glencarlyn schools may have to be attacked by lawsuits challenging the current plan, but at the moment no one in Arlington is suggesting such a suit is likely.
Reviewing charts and maps that detail attendance boundary changes and schools to which students may be transferred next year, Gardner summed up the criticism that has echoed through the black community for 12 years. "There's no doubt about it," he says, "black kids are being bused all over the county to achieve racial integration and that's the only group of kids who are."