School Superintendent Harry Pitt, attempting to compromise on a delicate issue, tentatively endorsed yesterday the creation of a special math-science curriculum in upper Montgomery County, but said the program should be small and not begin for at least five years.
In creating a program for unusually bright high school students, Pitt cautioned, the school system must be careful not to undermine the county's only high school desegregation effort, a magnet program at Blair High School in Silver Spring. The Blair magnet, started two years ago, is intended to attract white students from throughout the county to the two-thirds minority school through a special math, science and computer curriculum similar to the one proposed for the upper county.
Parents and staff at Blair had voiced fears that a competing magnet-style program would prevent Blair from drawing enough white students to accomplish desegregation.
Pitt said he shared this concern. "The Blair program, I am hopeful, will stand on its own. That's a must," the superintendent told school board members, as he recommended that the board wait until 1990 to decide whether to create the upper-county curriculum and another two years to start it.
He said he wanted the delay, too, to establish firmly two new high schools -- Quince Orchard and Watkins Mill -- due to open in the upper county during the next few years, and to strengthen existing honors curricula in the county's comprehensive high schools.
Pitt's recommendation to the school board is part of a complex controversy that has pitted residents of Montgomery's rapidly growing outer suburbs against those in heavily minority older communities. The issue has proven troublesome for school officials, because it represents a collision of two of their main goals: providing adequate services for students in areas of booming development, and desegregating schools at a time when minority enrollment has mushroomed, particularly in the inner county.
"This issue is one that I probably spent more time on than any other issue this year except the budget," said Pitt, who took over as superintendent in July. "There is no way I can either make everyone feel great about it or solve everyone's problem."
Judging by the reaction yesterday of community leaders from both ends of the county, he is right.
"I am really distressed with his asking us to wait until 1992," said Janet Garrison, who heads a citizens committee that has recommended a special math-science program for 400 students be put at Gaithersburg High School, starting in 1989.
"If it is so small, why do you have to wait so long?" asked Ronald Wohl, chairman of the Committee for the Up-County, a community group that has been a strong proponent of the new program.
Parents and community leaders who live near Blair were not completely comforted by Pitt either. Noting that the Blair magnet has not yet attracted its anticipated 100 students per year and has not yet produced its first graduates, they said they remained uncertain whether it can withstand competition from a similar program in the upper county.
Nonetheless they said they were heartened that Pitt emphasized the protection of the desegregation effort at Blair. Kay Meek, who lives near Blair and was her neighborhood's representative to the group that recommended the upper-county program, said: "He would have a larger headache if he accepted the recommendations of the committee."
Yesterday, Pitt said that, in light of the booming enrollment in Montgomery's northern and western sections, "there may well be a cadre of students who could benefit from such a program."
But he said it should enroll 25 to 40 students per grade, instead of the 100 per grade recommended by the committee.
He also disagreed with the committee's suggestion to put the program at Gaithersburg High, predicting that enrollment there will grow so quickly during the early 1990s that the school will be overcrowded. Instead, he suggested exploring a site unattached to a high school, perhaps near I-270, where high-technology companies are proliferating.
School board members postponed a detailed debate of the issue until a meeting in February. But already there were signs their opinions are divided.
"I've been particularly concerned we not do harm to the integration efforts. We shed a lot of blood over those," said board member Robert Schoenberg. "The superintendent's suggestion goes a long way toward making me feel easier about that."
But Bruce Goldensohn, the only board member from the upper county, disagreed. "I don't like the idea of waiting until 1990 to make this decision that we do it. I think we need it."
In other action, the school board elected as its president Sharon DiFonzo, 45, of Rockville, who has served on the board for four years. James Cronin, 45, who teaches history at Montgomery College and lives in Silver Spring, was elected vice president.