Every weekday morning, 10-year-old Jermaine Howard climbs into a bus near his Fort Washington home and rides to Owens Road Elementary School. On the half-hour trip, the bus rolls by one, then two, three, eventually four other elementary schools.
It is a bus ride that his mother, Chris, has objected to for more than a year, on the grounds that her fourth grader could be attending school much closer to home. This piece of the Prince George's County busing plan, she argued, was not accomplishing its objective of desegregation: Jermaine, who is black, is being bused to a school where enrollment is already predominantly black.
But a few weeks ago, Chris Howard was informed by the county that next year, Jermaine will be assigned to Indian Queen Elementary, a school that is only five minutes away from their home.
"It's the best idea they've had," Chris Howard said of the change. "I couldn't understand why they had to be bused so far. To bus [black] children to a predominantly black school, what good is that doing?"
Jermaine is one of about 500 students affected by modifications to the county's busing plan, approved recently by the Board of Education, to eliminate unnecessary busing of black children.
Although some parents have praised the changes, the county chapter of the NAACP has expressed concern about the plan. Leaders of the civil rights group say there may be more children who are being bused unnecessarily.
The changes, implemented this month, adjust the busing plan adopted 13 years ago under a federal court order to desegregate. The busing plan remains a fixture in the school system's efforts to desegregate. For some who believe black children bear a disproportionate burden of the busing, it has been a point of contention.
Until this year, when a magnet school plan was introduced, busing was the sole strategy to improve integration in the county's 175 schools. As the county has concentrated on the ambitious system of magnet schools, which offer special programs as an incentive for white parents to send their children to schools in predominantly black areas, attention has shifted from the busing plan.
The busing changes, which affect fewer than 1 percent of the 103,000 students in the county, were prompted by a legal agreement between the Board of Education and the NAACP, which filed the original desegregation lawsuit against the county. The agreement, signed last summer, required the schools to study ways to eliminate unnecessary busing of black students.
That requirement, which paved the way for introduction of a magnet school plan, reflected a longstanding belief in the black community that youngsters were being bused unnecessarily to predominantly black schools outside their neighborhoods. When the study was released, there was some surprise that so few students could be taken off bus routes.
While the NAACP disputes the study's findings, school board member Sarah Johnson said that, given the number of schools that have been closed in the black communities, she was pleased and surprised there were any black students who could be sent home to neighborhood schools.
"There has to be a home [school] to come to," she said.
Since the initial busing plan was adopted in the early 1970s, black enrollment in the county has increased from 25 percent to 60 percent and many neighborhoods have become predominantly black. In the southern half of Prince George's County, for example, the school enrollment is 70 percent black.
"Once you're at that demographic mix, the options for large-scale movement of youngsters to dramatically change racial composition are extremely limited," said Deputy School Superintendent Edward Felegy.
Under the changes approved by the board, about 100 students in parts of Glenarden and Palmer Park will no longer be bused. Instead, they will be able to walk to neighborhood schools. Also, about 400 students in six other communities will still ride buses but will attend schools closer to their homes.
That includes youngsters who, like Jermaine Howard, live within walking distance of a school but will be assigned to a bus because of traffic.
The plan itself has drawn only quiet reaction. No speakers showed up at a recent public hearing on the changes. Attorneys for the NAACP are deciding whether and how they will respond to the plan, and leaders of the organization are cautiously raising their concerns.
"What appears to be happening is that black students are being bused more than necessary to fill up other schools in other areas, obviously not for integration purposes," said Richard (Steve) Brown, executive secretary of the county NAACP. He argued that, in a preliminary review of the plan, officials should have included more students from middle and high schools.
Felegy said the staff spent months poring over bus routes and demographic charts to determine which students could be taken off buses or put on shorter bus rides. Their conclusions were based on the racial composition of the schools and space considerations.
NAACP leader Brown argued that some of the guidelines school staffs used in making their determinations were arbitrary. He said more students might have been included under different guidelines.