Eighteen buses pulled into Kenmoor Elementary School in Landover yesterday morning for the first day of school, delivering children from the far corners of Prince George's County to a magnet school designed for racial balance. The special programs for talented and gifted children at Kenmoor and five other schools like it easily attracted hundreds of white children to predominantly black schools.
But six other magnet programs -- called work place schools because they offer advantages to working parents -- were much less successful at drawing white families.
School officials were optimistic that the monumental desegregation program launched yesterday can end a 13-year-old dispute, despite the fact that only one of the six work place schools met desegregation goals.
"The work place is going to take a little more time," said Superintendent John A. Murphy. "It's a new concept. People are a little bit leery."
Verna Teasdale, whose two children opted for Kenmoor Elementary over their neighborhood school in Bowie, said the special programs, which include computer laboratories and foreign languages, were worth the 40-minute bus ride.
"If you're putting a kid on a bus just to get the color mix right, that's not a sufficient reason," Teasdale said. " . . . to enhance the education, that's an outstanding reason."
Talented and gifted programs like Kenmoor's drew 1,700 applicants for 1,000 slots, 70 percent of which are now filled with white children. By comparison, 420 slots set aside for white pupils in the work place schools drew only 103 children. There are 110 black children in those programs, but another 1,000 applied and are on waiting lists.
"That's making some blacks angry," Murphy said of the slots being held open for white children while black families wait. "We have to use this for a desegregation tool."
Ann Hite, one of the black parents whose child was accepted in a work place school, drove her fourth-grade daughter Latoya to Ardmore Elementary yesterday morning an hour before classes began. At Ardmore, as at the other work place schools, pupils can arrive as early as 7 a.m. and stay until 6 p.m. Instead of going to a babysitter, Latoya will now stay at school until 6 p.m., her mother said, receiving dance and music lessons and help with her homework.
"She will be learning something," Hite said. "I thought that was better than just sitting after school."
Officials of the county branch of the NAACP, the plaintiff in the desegregation lawsuit, have said they will wait and see whether the magnet system works. In the meantime, they have criticized the disparity in resources that they believe are going to the talented and gifted programs at the expense of the majority of the county's 103,900 students.
"We've always been violently opposed to the TAG [talented and gifted] magnets," said Richard (Steve) Brown, executive director of the county NAACP.
As an alternative to extensive busing and school closings recommended last spring by a court-appointed panel, Murphy proposed the creation of magnet schools and another 10 "compensatory education" schools that officials argue cannot be desegregated. At least 57 percent of the students in county public schools are black.
Part of the problem with desegregating the work place schools is attracting white families to schools in neighborhoods and with enrollments that are primarily black. "Once they see they're good, safe schools offering quality programs, they'll come," Murphy said. The same factor has not been a problem with the talented and gifted programs, he said, because those parents "will go any place for a program."