More than 500 Montgomery County parents and students turned out yesterday for an emotionally charged, sometimes divisive, hearing on proposals to close Charles W. Woodward High School in Rockville and to realign county elementary and middle schools.
The daylong hearing at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring was characterized by frequent clapping and cheering as several speakers told Board of Education members it would be a mistake to close Woodward and merge it with Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.
"It would be tragic and devastating if you were to wipe out the identity of that entire Woodward cluster" of schools, said Reed Snyder, a former principal of Luxmanor Elementary School, which could be affected by the changes.
Dozens of parents and students carried colorful signs saying, "Support continued excellence. Keep Woodward open." Some parents dressed in colors representing their children's school.
Seeking to remedy low enrollments at Woodward and Walter Johnson, school Superintendent Wilmer S. Cody has recommended that the two schools, which are within a half-mile of each other, be fully consolidated in 1988. He proposed that the boundaries for Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville be enlarged to include several future housing developments. The school board has presented its own proposals to assign new elementary schools to the Richard Montgomery feeder zone.
All the schools are in Area 2, which includes Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Rockville and Potomac.
Of all the proposals, the plan to close Woodward has drawn the most vocal opposition.
In his presentation to the school board yesterday, Woodward PTA President Rob Bernstein asked the board to defer a decision on closing Woodward to see if school projections on declining enrollments are correct. He suggested that the board try solving Walter Johnson's underenrollment problem by creating a magnet program there.
Much of the emotional opposition has to do with the perception that closing Woodward is unneccessary, Bernstein said. "We have not been shown Woodward is terminally ill. However, if school predictions do prove correct, the Woodward family would be willing to accept the closing without any rancor or bitterness," he added. "We never want to hear that the closure was a mistake and how do we correct the error."
The Woodward PTA presented the board with a petition from 1,683 community residents asking that the school remain open.
However, the call to save Woodward was not unanimous yesterday. One group of Woodward parents submitted a written statement to board members saying they are willing to work toward a consolidation of Woodward and Walter Johnson high schools. Woodward's PTA has taken the official position that Woodward must remain open.
"We disassociate ourselves from a position which calls for a loyalty to bricks and mortar at the expense of educationally sound programs for our sons and daughters," said the letter submitted by Jim Johnson, a member of the Woodward PTA. In the letter, Johnson said he is speaking on behalf of "a substantial minority" of the Woodward PTA board.
The letter adds, " . . . If the board finds that consolidation is absolutely necessary at the Walter Johnson campus, we are willing to enter into negotiations to make that campus the best educational environment for our sons and daughters."
The fight to keep Woodward open has been marked by uncharacteristic bitterness and divisiveness. A former PTA president has received telephoned death threats and several other PTA officials have been targets of vandals. School officials said these incidents may be connected to the fight over closing Woodward.
Members of the Walter Johnson PTA said they favor the merger, but they asked the school board to move it up one year, to 1987. They said schedule conflicts at the school will become worse as its enrollment declines during the next five years.
"The sooner it is done, the sooner the program gaffes will be corrected," said Walter Johnson supporter John Wunderlich.
Woodward's enrollment has slipped from a high of 1,143 in 1977 to 955 this year. Walter Johnson reached its peak enrollment of 2,277 students in 1961 but has only 1,023 students this year. School officials predict that enrollment at each school will fall below 800 by 1990.
Richard Montgomery High School has not yet felt the effects of underenrollment. However, school planners predict its enrollment will decline to 975 by 1990. The school now has 1,245 students.
George Beckerman, a member of the Richard Montgomery PTA, said his group will press for closing the school if the board does not take action to increase its enrollment.
Cody has said that high schools should have a minimum of 400 students per class, or a total of 1,500 to 1,600 students.
Under Cody's plan, once Woodward and Walter Johnson are merged, Woodward would be converted to a middle school for seventh and eighth grades. He proposed converting Tilden Intermediate School to an elementary school when Woodward becomes a middle school. Luxmanor Elementary School pupils would go to Tilden when it becomes an elementary school.
Another of Cody's proposals would close Cabin John Junior High School in Rockville in 1987 and send its students to Hoover Junior High School.
School board members have suggested assigning either Ritchie Park Elementary School or Farmland Elementary School pupils to Richard Montgomery High School.
The county school board is expected to vote on the proposals Tuesday.