The Brookings Institution report is titled "A Region Divided: The State of Growth in Greater Washington, D.C." But embedded in it is another theme that became evident in a Prince George's County forum this week. The county is a county divided--and fixing schools is a major key to progress.

The line of demarcation is the Capital Beltway, with new subdivisions and wealth outside and struggling households and communities inside.

Released in July, the Brookings report concluded that the Washington area is divided by race, income, jobs and opportunity, with the eastern half of the Washington area overly burdened by poverty and distress, while the western half enjoys most of the prosperity. The Monday forum in Riverdale was convened to discuss the implications for Prince George's, a jurisdiction of great potential and paradox.

It is a county with a large and affluent black middle class but also with large nagging pockets of working poor whose problems threaten to slow or even halt Prince George's County's progress--unless confronted locally and regionally.

Bruce Katz, director and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's center on urban and metropolitan policy, was quick to acknowledge that Prince George's is the exception to the regional geographic rule.

"You are one large county split in half between the inner-Beltway portion, with close to the problems of the inner city, and the outer-Beltway portion, which looks like a fairly wealthy suburb." The county, he said, has "the challenges of both distress and growth."

Other speakers picked up on this theme.

"We have an east-west divide" within Prince George's, said Steven J. Del Giudice, a former County Council member and current chairman of Commission 2000, a group appointed by the council to help chart the county's future.

"Folks in the inner Beltway are less well-off than those who live in the eastern half. If we don't come together as a community and make a decision to bridge that gap, we won't be able to do what we want to do."

Del Giudice, who has been guiding the 53-member group toward a report expected this spring, then delivered a message that may have provided a preview of the commission's ultimate recommendations to the council.

Del Giudice described the county as three rings--inside the Beltway, suburban areas immediately outside and a rural area to the east. "If we do not limit growth in the rural area and slow growth in the suburban area," he said, "no one's going to reinvest in the inner Beltway because land is too cheap and available out there; it's simple economics."

In Montgomery County, he said, after officials limited Upcounty growth, some inner-Beltway areas such as Silver Spring saw new development. It was due to economics, he said, "and also because they had a [superior] educational system."

Del Giudice said the county cannot achieve its economic potential without major improvement in the schools. "None of which we recommend or do will change the problems if we do not reinvest in our children and the school system," he said.

There has been "a lot of talk" about building new schools to relieve crowding, he noted. "I haven't heard any talk about paying for additional teachers and all the other operating costs. That bill is coming, and it's not going to be cheap."

Moreover, high-paying corporations won't come to Prince George's without good "schools to educate their employees' kids," he said. As for those who demand upscale retail, he said, "residential redevelopment and revitalization must come before commercial. If there are not people with disposable income, retail isn't going to come."

The 100 or so people who filled the Riverdale auditorium of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission comprised a who's who of the county's movers and shakers: the county executive, the school board president, town mayors, County Council members, leaders of the state legislative delegation and civic activists.

County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) said the oft-repeated message of regional disparity wasn't "forcefully received" until "someone with more prestige," referring to Brookings, "affirmed the forces that are making Prince George's what we are."

With a more-affluent, better-educated black majority in the county, he said, "you are establishing new territory with each political move you make. You are a pioneer within the context of the broader region." At the same time that Curry said the county is due more, he chided residents who take their retail dollars across the river to Virginia.

"Most of your transportation money is spent in Northern Virginia. Most of your retail money is spent in Northern Virginia," he said. "If you continue to take your money somewhere else, [the more expensive national chains] look at you funny" when you demand better stores at home.

Earl Adams, a law student at Boston College and a graduate of Friendly High School, said that despite his desire to return to Prince George's, he is troubled by the reality. He said he believes that the employment opportunities and education are "very attractive" in this metropolitan region, but not so much in his home county.

"It's disconcerting," he said. "I'd rather not be battling [Beltway] traffic" to live in Prince George's and work at a law firm in Reston. Further, he said, "I want to live in a place where my kids can be educated in the best possible system. We want to be able to rely on the school system. I have good friends who look at Fairfax County as their model."

CAPTION: Patterns of Growth in the Washington Area (This graphic was not available)