A proposal to build an alternative high school for disruptive students in Prince George's County -- scuttled by the Board of Education last year -- is once more drawing sharp criticism from some members of the black community who fear that it would become a "dumping ground" for black students.
"It's just not a popular notion in the black community," said Alvin Thornton, a member of the county NAACP's education committee. "Black students are going to be, in a discriminatory way, selected for this school . . . . We certainly will oppose it."
The high school, proposed this month by Superintendent of Schools John A. Murphy in his fiscal 1987 budget, would remove chronic troublemakers from their regular schools. Murphy said the students would be taught in smaller, remedial classes, subjected to a system of rigid discipline and prohibited from participating in extracurricular activities.
"I'm flying it again to see if there's interest," Murphy said, admitting that the program is not his first budget priority.
The school, expected to cost $600,000 for the fiscal year that will begin July 1, could house as many as 600 students. Thirty teachers would be hired for the school, according to Murphy's budget proposal. No building has been selected for the facility.
Students headed for suspension because of "severe discipline problems" would be sent to the alternative school, which Murphy described as a "boot camp" environment. As students progress and get closer to returning to their regular schools, he said, restrictions would be eased.
Murphy said he administered similar, successful programs at previous assignments in North Carolina and Illinois.
"While it impacts directly on a few," he said, "the message you give the majority is to help them see this place means business."
Despite Murphy's confidence, the proposal met with little enthusiasm last year and was eliminated from the budget by the Board of Education. Board members said there were concerns about who would be sent to the school and under what circumstances, as well as about the cost. When the budget-cutting process began, the school -- slated to cost $182,000 last year -- was one of the first items to go.
"Everybody was more or less in favor of some type of alternative, but not necessarily an isolated school," according to board member Barbara Martin, who said she will vote against the alternative school as it is proposed.
"I feel that something has to be done to give teachers relief," Martin said, but she also concurred with Thornton's objection that the school would be disproportionately populated by black students. "That's another form of segregation. That's isolation in itself."
The concern has led the NAACP's education committee, which discussed the matter last week, to oppose the school.
"The fear is that this will become a dumping ground for black students," said Thornton. Given what he said is a disproportionate representation of black students among those suspended from county schools, Thornton said he and others believe the same will be true of such a school.
"Nothing constructive will be done with them," he said. "The idea is that it would become a prison where you would just punish people."
In response to such criticism, Murphy said a committee has been meeting to iron out differences with opponents. "We don't want to be putting a program in that's going to be offensive," he said.
Murphy said he believes that the school can be modeled on Project SUCCESS, a program operating in three high schools, where students achieving below their potential are given special academic help.
Thornton also cited Project SUCCESS as a good model, arguing that officials should extend that program instead of establishing a new high school. He suggested that, as alternatives to the school, additional counselors or "human relations officers" be hired; that a "buddy" system be established to provide strong role models for black youngsters; that in-school suspension centers be better equipped with social and psychological workers, and that teachers and administrators be encouraged to take training in human relations and discipline.
While there is support for the school -- board Chairman Paul Shelby said he has seen a similar project work successfully in neighboring Anne Arundel County -- Martin and some other board members remain skeptical.
"My biggest concern would be the process," said member Doris Eugene, referring to regulations governing the length of time a student would be assigned to the school and the safeguards to keep it from becoming a "dumping ground."
Also, in delivering his $381.3 million budget, Murphy put top priority on raising teacher salaries and reducing class size, and since then has said he would fight to keep these items in the budget ahead of the high school.