The Montgomery County Board of Education voted early today to close Charles W. Woodward High School in Rockville and merge it with nearby Walter Johnson High in Bethesda, concluding one of the most divisive school closing battles in the Washington area.

The 4-to-3 vote came after a meeting, marked by frequent cheering and jeering from parents and students, that lasted more than five hours. Early in the evening there were more than 1,000 in the audience at the Wheaton High School auditorium.

The merger will begin next fall, with ninth graders who would ordinarily go to Woodward attending Walter Johnson instead. The consolidation will be completed in the fall of 1988.

Board members Marilyn Praisner, James Cronin, Blair Ewing and Peggy Slye voted to close Woodward, with Robert Shoenberg, Jeremiah Floyd and Sharon DiFonzo voting against the merger.

Closing Woodward is an attempt by the board to deal with declining enrollment in three high schools in the Bethesda-Rockville area.

Woodward and Walter Johnson's enrollments were expected to fall below 800 in 1990. Richard Montgomery High in Rockville is expected to fall below 1,000 students in the same year.

Rob Bernstein, president of the Woodward PTA, said he will recommend his PTA board appeal the closing decision to the Maryland State Board of Education. "I am shocked, utterly shocked," he said of the vote to merge the schools.

Bernstein and other Woodward PTA people have contended that the consolidation is unnecessary because the school system's predictions of underenrollment are inaccurate and Woodward already has a strong academic program.

Superintendent Wilmer S. Cody recommended that a 10-room, $1.5 million addition be built at Walter Johnson to accommodate the students from both schools.

According to school predictions, the consolidated school at Walter Johnson will have 2,000 students by the year 2000, but the school only has room for 1,625. The board voted instead to put 10 portables classrooms at Walter Johnson in 1988.

Early in the evening, several hundred Woodward students, many wearing their school colors of purple and white, clapped and chanted school cheers. Many carried signs that said "Woodward. Let it be" and "Keep the Spirit Alive. Save Woodward."

During a pause in the meeting, there was clapping and chanting of "CWHS." Several Woodward graduates showed up dressed in their graduation gowns to cheer for the school.

As the meeting wore on, the students began to leave when the outcome became increasingly clear.

"We feel there is nothing left to do," said 15-year-old Susan Athey, a sophomore at Woodward. "We all came down here and did our best."

In other action, the board decided not move either Ritchie Park Elementary School or Farmland Elementary School to the Richard Montgomery High School area.

Instead, it decided to reconsider changing school boundaries in the Rockville, Germantown and Gaithersburg areas beginning in 1988. It also agreed to add a special magnet program at Richard Montgomery to attract more students there.

The board voted to keep Luxmanor Elementary school open and decided to leave Tilden Intermediate School as it is.

Cody recommended closing Luxmanor and sending its students to Tilden. Tilden's students would have gone to Woodward, which would have been turned into an intermediate school under Cody's proposal.

The Walter Johnson PTA had favored the merger of the two schools, arguing that decreased enrollment prevented the school from offering as many honors courses as is desirable.

On Monday, the board is expected to take final formal action on all schools in Area Two, which includes Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Rockville and Potomac.

Board Chairman Shoenberg said, however, that the vote taken early today to close Woodward is final.

Board members also are expected to vote Monday on a capital improvement budget recommended by Superintendent Cody, which calls for spending $90 million next year to build three new schools in the Germantown-Gaithersburg area.

The upcounty area, particularly along the Rte. 70 corridor, has been gaining population and school children, while downcounty areas like Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Rockville have been losing school enrollment, causing pressure for school closings and consolidations.