Three years ago, my husband and I chose to enroll our daughter at Rosemary Hills Primary School, firm in our belief that she would be enriched by the experience. As products of the public schools in this area, we were (and still are) strong supporters of public schools. We believed she would be receiving the best education Montgomery County could offer in a racially integrated school geared to early childhood learning needs.
During the three years she attended Rosemary Hills, I was an active volunteer at the school and served as a member of the Parent Assembly during the 1981-1982 school year. During those three years it became increasingly apparent to me that the experiment that some have recently labeled a "national symbol" had serious problems and was not working as had been intended.
To understand the dimensions of the problem, a bit of background on the Rosemary Hills experiment is necessary. In the early 1970s, Rosemary Hills School was the most heavily minority school in the county, with a 90 percent minority enrollment. In 1975, the school board voted to make Rosemary Hills a primary school, serving only kindergarten through second grade. To achieve the desired racial balance, two predominantly white schools (Chevy Chase and Larchmont) were assigned to Rosemary Hills for grades K-2 and to their neighborhood school for grades 3-6. In addition, that primary school was to become a magnet--a school of such high quality that it would attract large numbers of students from surrounding K-6 schools in the newly formed eight-school Rosemary Hills Cluster. It was never intended that Rosemary Hills and Chevy Chase were to be paired.
Attendance at the primary school did not occur as planned. Of the two school groups required to attend Rosemary Hills, children from Larchmont failed to enroll at Rosemary Hills to such a degree that its neighborhod 3-6 school was closed in 1979 because of low enrollment. Furthermore, over the years there has been only a handful of children who voluntarily opted to attend the Rosemary Hills. Instead, the only cluster schools to flourish in those years have been neighborhod K-6 schools (Rollingwood, North Chevy Chase, Somerset, Parkwood and Rock Creek Forest). Transfers out of Rosemary Hills into either private or K-6 schools have grown over the years in ever-increasing numbers.
The challenge presented by large numbers of educationally disadvantaged children at Rosemary Hills was at best difficult. Each class had to be balanced by race, gender and neighborhood, which resulted in a vast range of abilities. At a primary school such as Rosemary Hills, the absence of upper grades severely limits the school's options in meeting the needs of children above grade level. (The reverse is true at 3-6 Chevy Chase, where learning needs of nonreaders must be met without access to primary grades).
Many parents feel that even the most committed teachers at Rosemary Hills have had their energies and abilities taxed to the limits. Of the original staff, handpicked and trained to deal with the difficult learning environment that Rosemary Hills would present, more than 70 percent have transferred. Even more disheartening to the parents is the fact that from each year's incoming kindergarten many children do not return for first and second grade, transferring either to private schools or to other neighborhood public K-6 schools.
Rather than simply withdrawing our children from Rosemary Hills, I and many other parents like me have over the years urged correction of its serious problems. We have persevered at the school in the hope and expectation that the superintendent would do everything possible to correct the increasing racial imbalance. No modification that would have corrected the problems of the existing program was ever forthcoming from either the superintendent or his staff.
When he finally did recommend a change-- five years into this experiment--it was a classic case of too little, too late. He recommended the closure of two very small schools and their assignment to Rosemary Hills for primary grades. The proposal would lower the minority balance at Rosemary Hills at best to 50 percent. Both of those schools made it clear that they viewed the assignment to Rosemary Hills as undesirable because of their preference for racially balanced, K-6 schools. The superintendent's recommendation was rejected in testimony before the board of education by both the parents of Chevy Chase Elementary School, whose children attended Rosemary Hills, and by those of the Rosemary Hills Parent Assembly because that plan failed to correct racial imbalance.
The superintendent's inability to devise a plan that would retain a primary school at Rosemary Hills that is racially balanced, and the clear preference of virtually all parents-- when given a choice--for a K-6 structure, make it clear that Rosemary Hills and Chevy Chase Elementary should be returned to a K-6 structure with an assigned student body to ensure racial balance. As such, they would be better equipped to meet the varied needs of their diverse student bodies and would have the added benefit of ensuring that children in the same family could attend the same school together.
We only want for our community what all the other public schools surrounding our area have had throughout the existence of the cluster. K-6 schools with racially balanced student bodies will have a far better chance of surviving for the long run and, accordingly, would promote far more stability for public schools in our area.