Today is the last day of school for kindergartners at Drew Elementary in South Arlington, and when they enter first grade this fall, they'll be in for some new experiences: homework, skinny pencils and white classmates.
All of the children in Drew's four kindergarten classes are black, even though only one out of six students in the Arlington school district is black.
"When I came here, it hit me right in the face," said Drew's principal, William Young. "I couldn't believe we had an all-black kindergarten in Arlington. It's a segregated class."
Twenty years after busing ended a history of all-white or all-black classes in many Virginia schools, the continuing segregation in the Drew kindergartens is highly unusual. Elsewhere in the state in racially mixed districts such as Arlington, almost all classrooms have been integrated.
The kindergartners come from the 90 percent black Nauck neighborhood where Drew is located. The all-black kindergartens were allowed to survive because black parents in Nauck wanted their children to remain at the neighborhood school.
"When they integrated the schools here in Arlington," Young said, "they told these parents that there would always be a program here for their 5-year-olds, so they could walk to school."
State education officials said the all-black classes at Drew are the only ones in Virginia in districts that are mostly white.
A segregated classroom "may happen in a place like Richmond where the school system is 90 percent black," said Howell Gruver, of the Virginia Department of Education. "But I would seriously doubt that there are similar situations elsewhere in the state."
Now, some black parents are beginning to think that the price of keeping kindergartners in the neighborhood -- segregating them from white classmates -- is too high.
"A lot of these kids are disadvantaged as far as social experiences go," said Portia Clark, whose 5-year-old daughter, Taren, is in one of the classes. "By not integrating them and by having them all together in the same classroom, you just make those problems worse."
Teachers at the school and administrators in the county say it would be difficult to integrate the classes while maintaining their neighborhood character.
"It's a complex issue," said School Board member Dorothy Clarke. "If you want a neighborhood kindergarten, it's going to reflect the demographics of that neighborhood."
Frank Wilson, the only black member of the Arlington School Board, said the district should find some way to integrate the kindergartens, even though they are in a predominantly black area.
"That all-black year comes in a critical time for those children developmentally," he said. "If we're going to prepare kids to function in the real world, it can't be in an all-black world or an all-white one."
A "model school" program with classwork tailored for individual students already operates at Drew for first- through sixth-graders, and it attracts 75 percent of its students -- many of them white -- from outside the Nauck neighborhood. There is also a separate Montessori preschool for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds with both black and white students.
"What could help," said Dianne Carroll, one of the kindergarten teachers, "is if the model school idea would move into the kindergarten, if that many more kids from across the county would come in."
Others argue that busing in enough whites to create an equal mix of black and white students would require enlarging the school, which is not considered practical.
The school administration considered closing the kindergarten and busing the black children to another school, but has decided against that solution.
Some Nauck parents send their children to kindergarten at Abingdon, Barcroft or Randolph Elementary schools in mostly white neighborhoods of South Arlington, where their children later will be bused for first grade.
The debate about the all-black kindergartens is likely to get more attention as the academic records of their students come under closer scrutiny. One measure of a kindergarten's success is how many students need to repeat the class.
"That program has been plagued with high retention rates over the years," board member Wilson said about Drew's kindergartens. "That's a sign that something is not operating at the level that it ought to."
Many parents of Drew kindergartners say they are satisfied with the academic gains of their children, particularly those who attended the "extended kindergarten," an intensive program for children who need extra help.
And a few parents say they like the fact that the kindergartens are all black. "When I went to Drew it was an all-black school, with all black teachers," said Patrice Taylor, whose daughter, Kendra, is in the kindergarten. "Next year, when she goes into the first grade, she'll be able to experience both ways."