More than 1,500 students at 15 schools in the southern part of Prince George's County--including hundreds of children at Andrews Air Force Base--would be affected by a massive school boundary proposal, which appears headed for school board approval.
The plan, drafted by military staff at Andrews in conjunction with school officials, would return most of the students to schools closer to their homes, as the school system continues to phase out the mandatory desegregation busing system in effect for 26 years.
The schools affected by the plan are: Edgar Allan Poe, Francis T. Evans, James Ryder Randall, John Eager Howard, Lyndon Hill, Princeton, Skyline, Thomas Claggett, and John H. Bayne elementaries; Andrew Jackson, Stephen Decatur, Thurgood Marshall, and Walker Mill middle schools; and Crossland and Surrattsville high schools.
The school board will vote on the proposal tomorrow.
School officials soliciting public opinion about the plan heard little opposition at a hearing last week at Surrattsville High School, and there has been little of the emotional debate about race and class that surrounded another boundary change, in the central part of the county this spring. In that debate in the Bowie area, some activists and parents said returning students to their neighborhood schools would again isolate students along race and class lines and create unequal schools.
Although the Andrews boundary proposal would decrease the diversity at some schools, those schools would receive extra money and resources, and some may get magnet programs to help encourage voluntary diversity, said Bill Greene, who oversees school boundary changes.
A few dozen military families turned out in support of the plan, saying that it was about time that their children attend schools close to the base. They echoed familiar themes about wanting their children to attend the same school as other children in their churches and neighborhood.
The military families stressed that returning their children to nearby schools is even more important to them because when one parent is sent off to active duty, the children often are looked after by neighbors. Keeping the children at schools as close to home as possible is imperative to making such arrangements work, they said.
Ruby Quinones, who lives with her husband on the base, said she pulled her children out of the public schools shortly after moving here in 1997 from California, in part because they were bused so far from home. She now home-schools them.
"I'd send them back in a heartbeat if this [proposal] was approved," she said. "It's unacceptable for my child to be bused for 25 miles or longer. . . . We'd be more than happy to return to neighborhood schools, and I think you'd see more parents get involved."
Yet the new boundaries could cause an unforeseen problem. Part of the agreement that led to the end of the busing system when the schools, county government and NAACP settled the desegregation suit last summer is a plan to ease crowding in the county's schools. Officials say they will build 13 to 26 new schools in the next six years.
School officials originally wanted to make these boundary changes in 2005, but Andrews officials pushed to make it happen sooner after school officials said a new elementary school would be built in the area near the base in 2001, not 2005.
Even so, if the boundaries are approved tomorrow, no one is certain how many children from military families would be returned to the public school system from private schools or home-schooling. Some estimates say as many as 500 children could return, creating more crowding in the schools. School officials say they do not anticipate a problem.
"A lot folks are struggling with their kids in private school because of the expense, and it will be to their advantage to bring them back to public schools," said Col. Larry Cannon, who lives on the base and has two children in public school.
In fact, some parents say the school system and military officials are moving too quickly with the boundary plan. The most controversial part of the plan would send all the current fifth-graders at Francis T. Evans and James Ryder Randall elementary schools, who normally would spend sixth grade in elementary school, to Stephen Decatur Middle School.
School officials say the plan is needed to help alleviate crowding and is a temporary solution until more elementary schools are built, but some parents say they are concerned that their children are not ready for middle school. "They never had a chance to be the big kid in school," said Lynda Gordon, who has twin fifth-grade boys at Evans. "They'll be the babies again next year in middle school, and they'll be picked on by the bullies again. They haven't learned how to be mature."
School Board Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland) said he agrees with the parents that the school system did not give them enough advance notice about the changes, and he said he will introduce a measure that would allow the fifth-graders to remain at their current schools for one more year, if they choose.
But Kim Yancy, president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Stephen Decatur, said her school is developing methods to help create a more orderly environment, such as requiring students to wear uniforms and giving the sixth-graders a separate wing so they won't mix with the older students.
School board member Marilynn Bland (Clinton), whose district includes many of the schools affected by the plan, said she had reservations about it at first but intends to vote in favor of the plan because she has heard little public opposition.