If a federal judge had not ended mandatory busing for Prince George's County's public school students, Donta Valentine would have traveled 40 minutes each way between his home in Seat Pleasant to Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie.
In the post-busing world of Prince George's County, Donta ended up at G. James Gholson Middle School, where he is now in eighth grade and closer to home. The school opened in 2002 to serve those communities around Landover whose children had gone to school elsewhere for many years. Donta still rides the bus, but it's only about 10 minutes, and from Donta's point of view, that's a good thing. Many of the parents think so, too.
To many parents and educators, neighborhood schools can breed academic success. "I think they feel more comfortable here," said Tara Adams, a teacher and testing coordinator at Gholson. "When they were being bused out, I think they didn't feel ownership of the school."
Donta's mother, Dorothea Myers, is still waiting to be convinced. She is not sure that going to school close to home also means her son is getting a better education. And returning students to schools closer to their communities hasn't wiped out the territorialism that busing created, she said.
"The building is nice," she said. "It's a big building, but when you have children coming from different zones, you have problems."
After introducing countywide busing in 1973 to integrate the public schools, Prince George's County changed course and began its experiment with community schools six years ago. That's when U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte ordered the end to mandatory busing, setting in motion the eventual end of a 30-year effort by the government to desegregate the county's schools. Along the way, academic achievement began to lag, and the county's public schools now rank second from the bottom in state standardized test scores.
When busing began, 33,000 of the system's 163,000 students were reassigned to schools outside their communities to achieve racial balance. Black and white students were bused across the county. But, by 1996, 92 percent of the more than 11,000 students who were required to be bused were black, and the schools they were being sent to were also majority-black. Prince George's County is a different place from what it was 30 years ago, when whites were the majority. The county school system is now nearly 80 percent African American.So the county is trying something else: focusing more on improving academic achievement rather than forced integration. Since 1998, the school system has returned about 14,000 students to their neighborhood schools while also boosting programs that officials hope will improve academics throughout the county. School officials continue to change attendance zones to alleviate overcrowding; the school board is expected to vote tonight on another round of boundary changes.
As part of the settlement of the desegregation lawsuit, the school system also has come up with a plan to restructure its magnet programs, which often caused students to be bused long distances but that were considered a way to keep the best and the brightest of all races in the public schools. The school board this year voted to phase out magnet programs that they believe have not been successful.
School board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) said the move away from busing for magnet programs has created stronger community schools. "I think they are more equal academically," she said. "It requires us to put the same rigor in all schools."
As part of the effort to assign students to their community schools, school and county officials promised to build 13 new schools and renovate several old ones.
Gholson was one of those schools.
Named for a former principal and schools administrator who helped draft the school system's desegregation plan, Gholson Middle School is a bright spot in a neighborhood that is otherwise most well-known for being the home of FedEx Field.
Until Gholson opened, students in the area were divided up among several middle schools, said Principal Tujuana White. They included Robert Goddard French Immersion School and Robert Goddard Montessori School in Seabrook, Greenbelt Middle, William Wirt Middle in Riverdale and Benjamin Tasker Middle. They could also enroll in the talented and gifted program at Walker Mill Middle in Capitol Heights, as well as the magnet program at Nicholas Orem Middle in Hyattsville.
As a result, when Gholson opened, White said, "they were elated about being home."
Gholson wasn't White's first experience opening a community school. In 1999, she supervised the reopening of Highland Park Elementary School, which had been closed down in 1973 when a federal judge ordered mandatory busing to desegregate the county's schools.
A quarter of White's students at Highland Park are now at Gholson. Some of those students have moved from school to school because of the boundary changes. The majority of Gholson's 1,000 students still travel by bus, because the roads near the school are not pedestrian-friendly.
LaTasha Lane, 14, who lives in Capitol Heights, spent first to third grade at Lyndon Hill Elementary School in Capitol Heights. In fourth grade, she was transferred to Highland Park, which was within walking distance of her home. When she moved to Highland Park, she didn't know anyone there, even though her classmates lived in her neighborhood.
"I didn't really know anybody around my neighborhood," she said.
She eventually made plenty of friends at Highland Park. Most of them are now at Gholson, which is a five-minute bus ride from her home.
Community schools can make a big difference, White said. On a recent day, she listed the ways: It is easier for students to participate in after-school activities. When they miss the bus, their parents can drive them to school. Teachers and administrators can drive them home if they don't have a ride. Parents are more willing to volunteer at the school because the location is more convenient, although school PTSA president Charlotte Underwood said the organization has gotten off to a slow start
"It's everyone's responsibility from the state of Maryland all the way down to the parent at home," she said. "Getting that message across has been difficult."
Creating a sense of community within the school is not a simple task, several teachers and parents at Gholson said.
Because Gholson drew students from several different neighborhoods, including Seat Pleasant, Fairmount Heights, and Kentland, that had been separated by busing, students continued to identify with their neighborhoods after they got to Gholson, teachers and parents said.
"These kids have never been together," vice principal Jeffery Parker said. "There was never a sense of community, and we're trying to rebuild that."
Steven Newman, a former dentist and first-time science teacher, said that because students live closer to the school, he can tutor them after school and drive them home if they can't get their own rides.
But, he said, "They're like the Hatfields and the McCoys. They're feuding in this community. It's just nonsense and they bring that into the school. And it gives them a reason to not focus on their work."
White said she and her staff have made efforts to bring the students together.
They divided the school into teams, designated by a color, making sure each team had geographic diversity. Once or twice a month, they have an alternative schedule, where students attend after-school clubs that don't belong to so they can interact with different classmates. Teachers even paired off students from different neighborhoods when they took field trips. If arguments or fights broke out, mediators and counselors were on hand to help students resolve their conflicts.
Beyond the territorialism, teachers, administrators and parents also had concerns about maintaining racial diversity, a goal that has become increasingly difficult with the county's changing demographics.
"Almost all of the schools are going to be heavily African American, which is still a concern of ours because we want to the fullest extent possible to have schools integrated with diverse populations," county NAACP chapter President June White Dillard said. "When we reach about 73 percent African American, our ability to do that becomes more unlikely."
Parker worries that Gholson has become re-segregated, because the neighborhoods surrounding it are majority African American.
"Personally, I think diversity is something that's good for our students," Parker said, "but they won't get that in our community school."
Pandora Smith, whose daughter is an eighth-grader, said many of the growing pains have subsided after a tough opening year.
"Just looking at the appearance of the school, I think [staff members and parents] thought the kids would fall in line, no problems, no challenges," Smith said. "What we forgot to keep in mind is it's just like any new business. It takes time to develop for things to run smoothly."