"The fear," says Carol Crannell, president of the Francis Scott Key Junior High School Parent, Teacher and Student Association, "is not that well spelled out. What I hear from parents and students in the county is not so much racial, like they don't want to go to school with blacks. It's more that you don't want your kids going to school with kids who have different values, who are from a different economic status."
Elaine King, a black parent at Key, speaks of the fear, too.
"Basically the fear they have is a socioeconomic thing," she says. "They'd rather see those kids south of the Beltway remain out there. The fear is that test scores will be lowered, that there will be big trouble. One parent at Cresthaven [an elementary school that sends students to Key] told me if those kids come over here he was going to have to teach his sons to fight with chains and switchblades."
The fear is that the growing number of low-income minorities in the Montgomery County Public Schools will cause discipline problems, lower academic standards, drug use.
The fear showed itself most starkly this month when the school board made plans for closing Northwood High School. Parents openly voiced the fear that sending their children to Montgomery Blair High School, a school with almost 60 percent minority students in a county that is 80 percent white, would mean sending their children to a school that was more likely to have problems. The preferred school was Einstein High School, a school with only 24 percent minority enrollment. Under a plan submitted by Superintendent Edward Andrews, the Northwood students would have been split, half going to Eistein, half to Blair, in a pattern that would have helped to even out the racial percentages at the two schools. The board vetoed the superintendent's proposal and adopted a plan that will allow Northwood students to go to Einstein.
One school the county could point to as a model is Key Junior High. A few weeks ago in a column about the dilemma parents face in deciding whether to send their child to private or public school, I recounted an anecdote involving a fight between a black student and a white student that eventually led a white parent to take her children out of the public schools. The letters and the phone calls from parents at Key have yet to stop. They defended their school, arguing that the incident happened several years ago under a different principal, and that now Key works.
"We have something very special here." says Crannell, the mother of two children at Key. "When I hear my kids discuss racial tension, they are asking what the adults are arguing about. They don't feel any racial tension."
How does Key work with a 47 percent minority enrollment, some from public housing projects, while other students come from wooded estates?
"When I was appointed two years ago," says Marion Bell, the black principal of the school, "I made it a point to meet with parents. There had been some racial things here; some fights. . . . The parents in one area, Calverton, upper middle class and white, were particularly concerned. Basically what they wanted was the best for their kids. I assured them that I was going to make sure every youngster worked at maximum potential and that we had a strong disciplinary policy. I would also make the kids feel that this was their school. And I told them that any parent -- black or white, no matter how poor -- wants the best for his child."
There were certain facts, however, that Bell's approach could not change. For one, there are only four black students in the ninth grade classes for the gifted. In the eighted grade, there are only three blacks out of 25 in the gifted section. But in the basic skills courses, remedial work, blacks make up a majority of the enrollment.
There are other divisions. The basketball team is mostly black; the gymnastics team mostly white. In the lunchroom, the black children regularly clump together. And the sight of a student being driven to school by a chauffeur can make for jealousies.
But the parents, the students, the teachers want it known that with all that could divide their school, Key has triumphed. When asked why, they usually cite the explicit set of disciplinary rules, which set a standard of fairness for all, the high level of parent involvement, a good principal and good teachers. To a visitor, though, the secret to Key's sucess is that students, faculty and parents care so much about the school. They take the time and make the effort to see that it works. For example, if a child is having problems at home, in school or with other students, there is the Mentor Program, which assigns an adult -- teacher, janitor or library aide -- to work one-on-one with the child and help him get back into the flow of the school.
All of this success is doomed, however -- and not by overwhelming problems caused by minorities coming in. The school board has voted to close Key and send most of its minority students to a school south of the Beltway. Schools need to be closed -- there is no question of that -- because of declining enrollments. But instead of letting unproven fears close schools and determine where students will be sent, the board might use a careful eye to find schools, like Key, that work and keep them alive.