This year, the line began to form at 10 a.m. on Labor Day, 23 hours before Page Traditional School in Arlington would begin accepting applications for the kindergarten class of 1987.
By the time Principal Frank Miller arrived at 9 a.m. the next day, about 80 parents were waiting on the lawn -- more than triple the 25 slots that would be available in the school's one kindergarten class.
Seven years after its much-heralded establishment as a back-to-basics, structured alternative to the open-classroom schools popular in the mid-1970s, Page is a cause of both enthusiasm and consternation in Arlington.
Each September, eager parents camp out on the lawn at 1501 N. Lincoln St. to put the names of their 3-year-olds on the kindergarten waiting list.
But other parents, as well as some principals and school officials, are questioning whether Page is substantially different from other elementary schools in the county. Some are troubled by Page's low minority enrollment, a surprise for a school that, in theory, should draw students from all parts of an ethnically diverse county.
"It is on my agenda to look at Page in depth and find out what are the advantages of Page over a Glebe, a Randolph or a Jamestown" elementary school, said School Board member Frank K. Wilson. "That is an unknown in my mind.
"It bothers me why we don't have more minority youngsters" at Page. Noting the countywide standardized test scores released this month, which showed black students scoring as much as 46 percentile points below whites, Wilson said, "The youngsters at the bottom of the academic ladder are the least represented at Page."
As of October 1984, 46.6 percent of Arlington's 7,389 elementary students were members of minority groups. At the same time, Page's student body of 364 was 81.6 percent white.
School and county officials say there has never been a formal challenge to Page's first-come first-served admissions policy. But some school and civic leaders say they have heard the concerns of minority parents expressed privately.
During discussions of school closings in the fall of 1982, some people criticized Page and Arlington's two other alternative schools. "People said that we were, in effect, running two systems, that anyone who wants to avoid racial mixing gets their child in the alternative system," said Margaret Wilson, chairwoman of the Civic Coalition for Minority Affairs, a council of representatives from civic and social groups.
The subject of Page's racial balance, and its impact on neighborhood schools, is something few in Arlington care to discuss.
"People avoid the issue because you don't want to talk about 'white flight' " from ethnically mixed schools, said one parent at Long Branch Elementary. "You don't want to accuse parents of a motive they may never have had."
Last year, the largest number of transfers to Page came from Long Branch, an open-classroom school with a 54.8 percent minority enrollment. The second highest number of transfers were from Taylor Elementary, a school whose racial mix is much like that at Page.
Principal Miller said he has no explanation for the low number of minority students, particularly blacks, at Page. "I wish it wasn't that way, but I really can't answer why it is," he said.
Lack of communication might be one answer, said School Board member Wilson. "I don't think we do a very good job in the minority communities of advertising about Page School," he said. Others note that recruiting for Page is itself a volatile issue, as other principals would likely resent efforts to raid their schools.
"Every parent in Arlington has an equal opportunity to be the first in line to sign his children up" for Page, said School Board member Dorothy H. Stambaugh.
And the parents who choose to wait, Miller maintained, do so because they believe in Page's philosophy: self-contained classrooms, assigned homework four nights a week and clearly expressed codes of behavior and dress.
Some evidence of this philosophy is visible in the quiet, colorful classrooms at Page.
"Hands in your laps; show me you're ready," Lorraine Gandy told her kindergarten class one recent morning. The children sat in tiny chairs, eagerly raising their hands to answer Gandy's questions and being careful not to touch the frosted cupcakes in front of them until their teacher announced it was snack time.
During a morning fire drill, two fourth-grade boys who talked were firmly guided out of line and made to sit alone, a few yards from the other children, until the drill ended.
Back in the classroom, one group of fourth graders bent over a math assignment. They were dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, shorts and sneakers. A few whispered and giggled when their work was finished.
Critics of Page say that scenario isn't very different from what goes on in classrooms around the county. As Arlington schools, mirroring a nationwide trend, have moved closer to educational basics, some say little remains to make Page distinct -- except the presence of parents with clear expectations.
"If a parent perceives a school to be something, whether it actually is or not is beside the point," said Long Branch Principal Margery Tracy.
"Elitism absolutely is a factor" in Page's popularity, Stambaugh said. "People say: 'I'm in and you're out and that makes me special.' . . . I think there are parents who have their children in Page for all the wrong reasons, but I think those parents are few and far between."
School Board member Margaret A. Bocek, who has two children at Page, echoed many Page parents in praising the school's policies of assigned homework starting in kindergarten, self-contained rather than open classrooms and the folders of student work and teacher comment sent home each week.
Several parents, principals and school officials said the questions about Page have no easy answers; while some criticize the school, nearly all agree that public school systems should make room for such alternatives.
The critics and advocates alike point out that alternative schools, no matter what their philosophy, inevitably share an ingredient that swells their appeal and fosters their success.
"One real asset" of Page and other alternative schools, said board member Stambaugh, "is that the parents, at least at one point, made a true, conscious intervention in their children's education."