The plan to integrate black and white students at Capitol Heights Elementary School in January 1972 was obsolete before the ink dried.
It had been a predominantly black school for several years, and the plan was to give it a better racial balance by busing white children in from different neighborhoods in Prince George's County. But the area around the elementary school, and the neighborhoods from which other children were supposed to be bused to Capitol Heights, had been changing from white to black faster than the school demographers realized. Soon after the buses started rolling to Capitol Heights in the early 1970s -- as court-ordered busing took effect in the massive suburb in the shadows of the nation's capital -- they were, in fact, doing little good in terms of desegregation.
What happened at Capitol Heights Elementary, and dozens of other schools like it, is at the center of the renewed dispute over the desegregation of public education in Prince George's County. Last week the NAACP, which brought the original suit that led to court-ordered busing, returned to court charging that the desegregation plan has not lived up to its promise.
The civil rights group claimed that the school administration had failed to ensure that desegregation would work, anddid not study the demographics well enough to know where the black and white students could be found and bused so that all schools would have an acceptable balance. The administration, led by Supt. Edward J. Feeney, denies this, arguing that it has made its best effort to desegregate the schools.
Sometime in the next two weeks, U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman in Baltimore will hear both of those arguments as he decides whether to reopen the suit that ripped the county apart nearly a decade ago. The story of Capitol Heights Elementary School represents a microcosm of the difficult issues Kaufman will face once again.
Capitol Heights Elementary went from 74.4 percent black in September 1972 to47 percent just five months later. But by the fall of 1973 the percentage of blacks had climbed back to 53 percent, and the trend continued from then on; last year it was 77 percent black, far from the balance mandated by the court. This is how it happened and what has resulted.
In 1970 the city of Capitol Heights, population 2,800, was 61 percent white and was comprised largely of blue-collar families who had moved across Southern Avenue from the District of Columbia after World War II. They built the one-story bungalow houses of brick, shingle and stucco that cover almost every inch of the steep hills in the tiny city. The small front yards have tall trees that shade winding streets barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Residents still amble down the middle of the roads because most of them lack sidewalks.
But most of the white families had passed their child-rearing years by 1972, the year before the court-ordered busing plan went into effect, while the younger black families who followed them from Washington came specifically with better educations for their children in mind.
"I came in 1966 from Southeast D.C. looking for a better place to live and to raise my children," said Junna McNair, former president of the Capitol Heights Elementary PTA, whose four children attended the school. McNair said whites owned all the homes on the opposite side of her street when she came, but only one elderly white woman lives on her street today. Ada Courtney, a white resident of 40 years, says: "The old ones died and the young ones moved away."
In September 1972 there were 670 students at Capitol Heights Elementary, 170 whites and 500 blacks. In December, Judge Kaufman ordered the school system to come up with a plan to make all schools no more than 50 percent black and no less than 10 percent white. Blacks then were 24 percent of the school system.
In a back room of the Baltimore courthouse, school officials -- including the present superintendent, Feeney, director of pupil accounting Jon Peterson, and Kaufman -- rushed to put the plan together so quickly that they did not have time to inform parents affected until the buses rolled.
Peterson said that it was important to minimize the number of new students put on the bus who previously had walked to school. The solution was to group schools in predominantly black areas with predominantly white ones along 10 "corridors" reaching from the heart of the black population, centered near Capitol Heights, like spokes on a wheel. Each corridor was supposed to reach far enough to contain the solution to racial imbalance within those schools.
The responsibility for integrating Capitol Heights fell upon 251 children in Forestville, about three miles away. Their parents lived in some of the moderately priced apartments that abound in Prince George's. Many of the families were headed by noncommissioned officers from Andrews Air Force Base, who shared the same struggle to make ends meet as did the black parents in Capitol Heights. In exchange, 270 blacks were bused from Capitol Heights to Forestville Elementary.
"The white people were shaky about being bused into Capitol Heights because of the reputation," said Ruth Ward, who became principal of Capitol Heights the first year of integration. "But when they came over and saw the school and how clean it was, it went so smoothly it was frightening."
The plan was supposed to create a 43 percent black school. But when school officials took the first quarterly head count required by the judge in February it was 47 percent; by May it was 49 percent and still growing.
Fewer white children were getting on the bus, but attendance director Peterson could not say whether it was due to families who removed their children because of busing or a result of the normal 42 percent turnover rate for students in all Prince George's schools.
"Imagine someone living in an apartment, who might have been thinking about moving anyway . . . who can say?" asked Peterson.
Today, the garden apartments in Forestville that the school system thought were all white in 1973 are predominantly black. And, according to Peterson, it would be almost impossible to try to make another plan work.
"It's not there to do anymore. There are no longer all-white blocks and all-black blocks," he said.
By 1979, Forestville Elementary went from9 percent black to 65 percent. In an effort to reduce "unnecessary busing," the school board returned 118 students -- including 16 whites -- to Capitol Heights Elementary where they lived, but continued to bus a predominantly black group out of Forestville. As a result, Forestville's black percentage fell one point. Capitol Heights went from66 percent black to 77 percent black because of the move that the NAACP called "unilateral."
In the midst of all the new talk about black-white percentages, many of the Capitol Heights school personnel insist they are much more worried about getting enough crayons and pencils for their charges to learn with this year than what lawyers say is best for them.
"I don't see a change," said Natalie Nugent, who has taught first grade there since 1970. "It all seems the same to me . . . . I guess there are less whites now than in 1973."
The school's 14 teachers, including six blacks, were counting out supplies on the fourth day of school and working on the two-page letters they send to parents every year urging them to buy paper, crayons and magic markers.
Elsie Studevent, a black teacher who is beginning her first year at Capitol Heights after 13 years in Buckingham Elementary school, which was 86 percent white and which closed last year, said the only difference she has noticed is that parents at her old school seemed to have more time to spend with their children's schoolwork.
"You have a different level of expectation on the part of parents," she said. "This will be much more of a challenge than Buckingham."
Studevent ended up at Capitol Heights because she was at the bottom of the seniority list at Buckingham, even with 13 years experience. She will be the third most senior teacher on the Capitol Heights staff. Half of Prince George's teachers have less than 12 years in the system; the figure for Capitol Heights is 70 percent.
"The feeling on staff is that inner beltway schools are rougher," said Studevent. "Very few people hang around. On the other side of the beltway you were free to work until 6:30 and you weren't concerned for personal safety."
Nevertheless, Studevant does not see what the mostly black students, whose standardized test scores last year equaled county averages for the first time since 1975, would gain from further integration. Like many of Prince George's black teachers and school officials who were educated in a segregated system, she believes that having more black teachers to shape the young students aspirations would make a difference. Ironically, the NAACP would like to see black teachers distributed more evenly throughout the schools.
The NAACP, however, will have no effect on Capitol Heights this year. Under the new principal, a black woman called "Lady B" by students, the students start each day with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a moment of "silent meditation" and a "patriotic song for the day."
Lines of black children, with a few whites scattered among them, troop past a bulletin board with a picture titled "September Sings." It shows a school bus labeled "Capitol Heights," with three white children smiling from its window and two empty buses following it.