A recent report questioning the effectiveness of Montgomery County's minority education programs underscores what many parents have been trying to tell administrators for years: that some magnet schools are not helping to integrate the county's children. But in a slightly different twist from the preliminary findings of the consultant's report, we would argue that these magnets have been equally ineffective for majority and minority students alike.
Two examples will bring to life the problems alluded to in the Yale study, which concluded that the county is having difficulty educating its growing and increasingly diverse population. Rock Creek Forest Elementary School, between Chevy Chase and Silver Spring, draws on a significant minority population. So does its neighboring school, Rosemary Hills Elementary, just six blocks away. But these two neighboring schools, both of which seized on the magnet school concept, have gone in opposite directions in both composition of their student populations and ability to provide quality education in an integrated setting.
In 1983, Rosemary Hills became a math/science/computer magnet serving grades K through 2. (Students can then go on to Chevy Chase and North Chevy Chase Elementary for grades 3 through 6 -- a compromise for parents dissatisfied with the idea of having to bus their children to Rosemary Hills.)
At the same time, Rock Creek Forest developed a Spanish immersion magnet program designed to attract students from throughout the county. While all of Rosemary Hills devoted itself to math and science, Rock Creek Forest devised a dual program -- a Spanish immersion track (the magnet) and an English track for those who did not want Spanish immersion.
The enrollment statistics since the 1985-86 school year begin to tell the story. In '85-'86 Rosemary Hills' student population was 49.6 percent majority; in 1989-90 it was 60.8 percent majority and 39.2 percent minority. Rock Creek Forest, on the other hand, went from 42.3 percent majority enrollment to 35.8 percent, and minority enrollment has increased from 57.7 percent to 64.2 percent.
These statistics only begin to scratch the surface. It is only when one looks at Rock Creek Forest more carefully that one uncovers the failure. Rock Creek Forest is not really integrated; its two tracks ensure that. The Spanish immersion program, which receives magnet resources and attention, is dominated by majority students. The English track, the alternative to the Spanish immersion, is more than 80 percent minority. The two programs are completely separate -- the students in the two have no classroom contact.
The county has continually chosen to hide behind statistics for the school -- not all that impressive in their own right. The fact that classrooms are segregated is only apparent to the individual who visits the school. The Spanish immersion program excludes the significant Hispanic population (over 25 percent in 1989-90) and a large number of other minority students who are assigned to the school and choose English. The Spanish "'magnet" is the only draw for majority students outside of the school's district. Thus, we have what the report refers to as "resegregated students in much closer quarters."
Rosemary Hills has worked because the magnet program has created a learning environment where all children receive the benefits of integrated education, and parents know this. In fact, Rosemary Hills is really no longer a magnet school -- its student population is now almost entirely "home-grown." This year, no kindergarten students were accepted from outside the assigned district.
On the other hand, Rock Creek Forest has failed because it provides clearly unequal opportunities. It has created a segregated environment. Many parents who do not choose Spanish immersion for their children have turned elsewhere. Children not in the Spanish immersion program are denied the opportunity to learn in an integrated classroom.
-- Robert and Valerie Slater live in Chevy Chase.