When the Montgomery County school board decided five years ago to combine students from Montgomery Knolls and Pine Crest elementary schools in Silver Spring as part of a plan for racial integration, parents from both schools protested strenuously.
Now some of those parents are at odds with the school board again, but this time the roles are reversed.
The board, led by its conservative majority, has insisted that the county return to a system in which all elementary schools offer kindergarten through sixth grade, effectively undoing what parents from the two areas surrounding Pine Crest and Montgomery Knolls believe to be a striking example of educational success and community interaction.
"We have merged ourselves together and we say we have one neighborhood, with two school campuses," explains Ruth Manchester, cochairman of the Pine Crest Parent-Teachers Association, which joined with the parents group from Montgomery Knolls several years ago. "The two schools have offered such fine programs that we have no reason to think this pairing is not right."
Under the current system -- adopted by a liberal school board in 1976 despite a lawsuit brought by some parents -- children from the predominantly white area of Woodmoor and the largely minority neighborhood near Montgomery Knolls go to Montgomery Knolls for kindergarten through third grade, and then to Pine Crest for grades four through six.
As a result of the pairing, the schools are almost evenly integrated, with minority children comprising 48 percent of the student body at Montgomery Knolls and 40 percent at Pine Crest.
The schools use the same textbook series for reading and mathematics to ensure continuity when students graduate from one school to the other. The principals and staffs are in touch about how their programs are working. And now many parents who once voiced loud objections to the pairing are convinced that it is a novel success.
"Many of the things we did paid dividends and worked," says Pine Crest principal Joe DiTomasso, recalling the resources and staff that were added to the schools when they were first paired. "That is why so many of the people in the community are pleased and want to continue it."
Although school superintendent Edward Andrews recommended last spring that the schools stay the way they are, the board majority demanded a return to the kindergarten through sixth-grade structure throughout the county, except at the New Hampshire Estates Elementary School, which has a student enrollment that is 76 percent minority and is located close to the District on New Hampshire Avenue.
As part of their campaign pledges, members of the board majority had stressed a decrease in busing for racial integration and a return to the concept of "neighborhood" schools. And although these are not the explanations given for breaking up the Montgomery Knolls and Pine Crest pairing, some parents feel the board's intent is political.
"I think that it is being done for the symbol of keeping neighborhood schools," says Bob Cunningham, who lives with his wife and two children in the Montgomery Knolls area.
However, board President Carol F. Wallace, noting that she has not made up her mind on the Montgomery Knolls and Pine Crest pairing, says the county schools need more uniformity and that a return to the kindergarten through sixth-grade structure is one way to do it.
"The board majority feels that the K-6 configuration is still the best for children," Wallace says. She adds that education research shows that students lose time academically every time they switch schools and that "you lose a certain amount of leadership" among students when you divide schools into primary and intermediate levels.
Wallace says that some parents from the Pine Crest and Montgomery Knolls area have called her to say they do not like the pairing. Those contacts were private, she said, because the parents involved feared repercussions in their neighborhoods if they were identified.
In addition to feeling that the pairing has worked educationally, parents charge that the board's plan fails to meet the board's own objectives. By reverting to two K-6 schools, parents say, enrollment would decline sooner at both schools and utilization levels would be reduced. The minority percentage at Montgomery Knolls would jump from 48 to 58 percent, which is just under accepted county guidelines. At Pine Crest the minority population would be reduced from 40 percent to 34 percent.
And although the "pairing" of the schools involves busing 175 children out of their immediate neighborhoods for a two-mile ride to the other school, parents do not seem to object. They will tell the board at a public hearing Monday that the plan would cause greater disruption in their community by separating students who have been together and by bringing in many more students from other districts.
"I wish they would just leave us as we are," says Martha Wells, whose five children all have attended Pine Crest. "We have worked out all our problems."