Amid the controversy over a report released this week proposing dramatic changes in Prince George's County's school desegregation plan, Superintendent John A. Murphy is quietly working on his own measure to improve integration: an unusual program of magnet work-place schools.
His proposal would encourage parents to enroll their children in schools outside the neighborhood, offering the choice of a school near their place of employment and before- and after-school care for children.
A committee appointed by Murphy is drawing up a detailed plan to implement the program in the fall, and the superintendent hopes to offer it in response to the recommendations on desegregation submitted to a federal court Monday by a panel of educators. That report, which called for some increased busing, pairing some schools, opening some and closing others, has drawn criticism from school officials.
While those officials study the report and decide whether to include work-place schools in their response to the court, Murphy has indicated he will push for the program even if it is not incorporated in a formal desegregation effort.
"It's an idea whose time has come," Murphy said. "Regardless of what happens with the desegregation plan , it's something we should pursue."
Work-place schools are a relatively new version of the "magnet" school concept that has been used nationwide since the late 1960s, frequently as a means of desegregation. By offering special programs unavailable in neighborhood schools, magnet schools encourage the movement of children out of racially segregated neighborhoods, thereby integrating the magnet school.
In Houston, one of a small number of school districts in the country offering work-place schools for purposes of desegregation, the program has proved so popular it has been expanded from two to 68 elementary schools in a decade.
Van pools pull up to Houston's Will Rogers Elementary School like clockwork on weekday mornings, delivering children to school and their parents to work nearby at a complex of office buildings. The families journey from every corner of the city, arriving as early as 7 a.m., and gather again at the end of the workday for the ride home.
"The parents like them, the students like them, the teachers like them," said Patricia M. Shell, Houston's superintendent for instruction.
Sharon Lucas, an account executive at AT&T, drives 15 miles across town every morning, drops off her 8-year-old son at Will Rogers, leaves an older daughter at a nearby middle school and by 8 a.m. is at her office a few blocks away.
"I thought maybe if they were just physically close to me I would be in better touch with them if they need me," said Lucas, who opts not to use the van pools sponsored by some companies near the school. "If they call and say they forgot their lunch, it's no problem for me to run to school and leave them lunch money."
Lucas, who has had a child in the work-place school since 1978, said it has enabled her to get active in parent organizations and given her children a chance to take violin and dance lessons after school.
"I love it," she said. " . . . My children don't seem to have the latch key syndrome."
While Lucas enjoys the convenience of the work-place school, Houston educators point to the success of the concept in promoting desegregation. Houston's 80 magnet schools, which include the 68 work-place schools, are the centerpiece of the district's desegregation plan. In conjunction with voluntary transfer of students between schools, the magnet program led to the resolution last fall of a 28-year-old court order overseeing Houston's desegregation effort.
There is a waiting list of parents eager to get their children in Will Rogers and most of Houston's other magnet schools, enabling school officials to maintain racially balanced enrollment by keeping racial guidelines in mind in accepting students. Will Rogers Principal Mattelia B. Grays said that of 283 students now in the program, about one-third are black, a third white and a third Hispanic.
"It's done precisely what I wanted it to do," said Grays, who said the program answered a pressing need for before- and after-school care and improved racial balance.
School officials in Prince George's say that work-place schools will be just as popular in their county, where a survey found that parents of more than 15,000 elementary children would like to place their children in such a program.
"There is a great need," said Thelma Butler, principal at Capitol Heights Elementary and chairwoman of the study committee that is expected to present its proposal to Murphy in the next two weeks.
Murphy must still gain approval from the school board for the program before it can be offered to U.S. District Court Judge Frank A. Kaufman.
"There are a lot of things that have to be ironed out, but the board is in favor," said Sarah Johnson, school board vice chairwoman. "You're talking about funding; you're talking about finding space in appropriate schools near thoroughfares."
For Johnson and other school officials, of primary concern is the large proportion of "latch key children" in the county, estimated as high as 60 percent in some areas. Furthering desegregation, she said, would be an additional benefit. "We're dealing with children and the needs of children. If we happen to meet some other criteria along the way, that's fine."
Much of the community reaction has been positive, Johnson said. At the same time, the county chapter of the NAACP, which filed the desegregation lawsuit against the county, has taken a wait-and-see attitude.
"I'm not saying the program isn't needed," said Thomas A. Newman Jr., head of the organization's education committee, but he questioned whether the schools would further desegregation.
While there are extended day-care programs at public schools in the D.C. area, only a few districts in the country have incorporated this service into a magnet school system aimed at desegregation.
As superintendent of a North Carolina school district, Murphy oversaw a similar program, which is still in effect. In that Wake County district, the extended-day program was designed to aid integration by drawing students to inner-city schools.
"By having an instructional program that was so good that parents would want to go there . . . the inner-city schools are still thriving and racial balance in inner-city schools has improved," said Helen Frazelle, Wake County instruction director.
While the extended-day magnet concept is relatively new, other versions of the magnet school have been on the scene since the late 1960s. According to a national report conducted in 1983 for the U.S. Department of Education, creation of these schools has been successful as a desegregation strategy.
The most common version of the magnet school has been instituted at high schools and has offered students special courses in mathematics and science, performing arts and foreign languages, among other areas. Several magnet high schools are operating in the Washington area, and a regional science and technology high school is scheduled to open this fall in Fairfax County.
Murphy's plan for Prince George's would use existing elementary schools near major employment centers -- Greenbelt or New Carrollton, for example -- as well as communities near the District line. He hopes a pilot program in three to five elementary schools can be initiated in the fall.
The before- and after-school programs would be financed by fees charged to parents. Kathy Snyder, special assistant to the superintendent, said the fees would be competitive with private day-care centers.
She said the committee is proposing that certified teachers from outside the school be hired to run the programs with the help of aides. The curriculum, she said, would be instructional, but less structured than the normal classroom routine. "It's not just general baby-sitting," Snyder said.