Next year, 5-year-old Amber Blackburn may have to ride a bus for almost 1 1/2 hours to get from her home near Bowie to her first-grade classroom near the District line, school officials say, under a desegregation blueprint proposed for Prince George's County.
The same set of recommendations would put 10-year-old Barry Mason, who lives in Suitland, on the reverse bus ride, headed for Amber's elementary school near Bowie.
The two children live at opposite ends of the county and inhabit very different worlds, but they have one thing in common: Their families say they would rather move out of Prince George's County than have their children bused more than an hour to school.
"I have no prejudices . . . [but] I think desegregation has gone so far it's reached the point of ridiculousness," said Jan Blackburn, whose daughter would be reassigned from the predominantly white neighborhood school where she attends kindergarten this year to a predominantly black school near Suitland. "We're no longer looking at what's good for our children. We're only looking at how many black bodies and white bodies are in a classroom."
Sylviene Mason, Barry's mother, said she does not object to busing when the distances are shorter, but in her son's case, "He can't sit still on a bus that long."
In the past few weeks, discourse on the burdens and blessings of desegregation has echoed in school corridors and PTA meeting rooms from Laurel to Eagle Harbor, as Prince George's County wrestles with the enduring and difficult issue of racial imbalance in its 175 schools.
The county is accustomed to legal challenges and busing. In 1973, U.S. District Court Judge Frank A. Kaufman ordered the county to desegregate its schools, and the school system took steps to comply. But over the next 10 years, middle-class black families with children, seeking affordable housing in a suburban setting, steadily moved from the District to the county, increasing racial imbalance in the schools. In 1983, Kaufman issued a second order.
Since then, the parties involved -- the schools and a court-appointed expert panel -- have spent time distilling their arguments down to two proposals, each with potentially far-reaching implications.
Kaufman will ultimately decide which plan, or what parts of each plan, to use. Whatever his decision, Prince George's officials will have to continue to worry how to maintain a desegregated system when black school enrollment continues to climb, from 25 percent in 1972 to nearly 58 percent this year.
The challenge to desegregate the Washington area's second largest school system is acute:
* The school board reported to the court last year that in 32 schools, enrollment was more than 80 percent black.
* A court-appointed panel of experts recently noted that school segregation has been climbing steadily since 1973, when the original busing order was issued.
* If present trends continue, the panel said, the county's elementary schools will be as segregated in 20 years as they were before the 1973 order.
One plan to stem this trend, proposed by the expert panel, calls for closing as many as 34 elementary schools and six middle schools, "pairing" dozens more and potentially reassigning more than 29,000 students, according to an analysis by the school staff. The proposal would transfer students from the predominantly black inner Beltway area to the predominantly white outer Beltway, and vice versa, "leap-frogging" over the integrated neighborhoods in between.
That report, which contained numerous alternative recommendations, was submitted last month to Kaufman, who is administering the court order.
In response to that report, School Superintendent John A. Murphy has offered an alternative proposal to open 26 magnet schools over the next five years. The magnet schools would offer specialized programs and services aimed at drawing students out of racially segregated neighborhoods into integrated schools.
The magnet schools might ultimately shift as many children as would the panel's recommendations, over distances of similar length, Murphy said, but the movement would be voluntary, and students would benefit from improved educational programs at the end of the bus ride.
Murphy's proposal, if approved by the county Board of Education, must be submitted to Kaufman by April 22.
Parents have gathered by the hundreds in county school auditoriums during the past several weeks to dissect the two proposals and voice objections to the school closings and long bus rides recommended in the so-called Green report, named for Robert L. Green, president of the University of the District of Columbia and head of the expert panel.
If the Green report recommendations were adopted, said Sylviene Mason, "I'd move. I'm against it -- the long rides, the inconveniences. It's unfair to the child and the parents." The proposal would reassign her son from Overlook Elementary to Pointer Ridge Elementary. "If they were not busing them so far, it would be fine," she said.
School officials said 85 minutes is the longest bus trip recommended by the Green panel, but added that under the proposal the average trip time would increase from about 22 minutes to nearly 37 minutes for students reassigned for purposes of desegregation. Panel members and proponents of the report, however, said the school analysis may not have taken into consideration options that would have required less busing.
There are those parents who support the Green report, although they have been less vocal than opponents.
"I have nothing against it," said Venessa Jones, a black mother whose 10-year-old daughter Kandice attends Kenmore Elementary, which would be closed under the Green recommendations.
Jones, a school bus driver in Arlington, said she sees the advantages of busing children for desegregation. "If they do it equally, it's nothing for anybody to worry about; nobody will be slighted," she said. "I think it's good . . . . They get a different look at how other people live."
John Rosser, a plaintiff in the desegregation lawsuit filed by the NAACP against the county in 1972, said the Green report has inspired community uproar because, for the first time, large numbers of white children would be affected.
"You don't hear that hue and cry from black parents," he said. "We have borne that burden for more than a decade."
Green acknowledges that his panel's recommendations are controversial, but he said the emotion over busing and school closings was not unexpected. "What we are hearing in Prince George's County has been heard all over the country.
"I'm not a busing person," he added. "I'm an educator who strongly supports strategies to best educate all children. If that means a bus ride is necessary, then busing becomes important."
Green said he was skeptical about whether Murphy's magnet proposal could effectively desegregate the county schools. "If the magnet school is placed in an area perceived as a black area, the national data suggests that white parents do not allow their children to be bused to that area," Green said.
Joseph M. Hassett, attorney for the NAACP, said magnet schools have worked in Milwaukee, a model cited by Murphy, because the court order there contained a backup busing plan that would go into effect if the magnet system did not lead to racially balanced schools.
"That gave the incentive for parents to take advantage of the magnet alternative," Hassett said. "Otherwise, it's just pure chance."
Other jurisdictions around the country have used busing, including some hour-long rides, to successfully desegregate. Charlotte, N.C., for example, where students ride 45 minutes to an hour on a bus, is often cited as having one of the most successful desegregation plans in the country.
"We found long-distance busing is not as much of a concern as people thought it would be," said Chris Folk, associate superintendent in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County school system. "It's not the bus ride per se, but what's behind the schoolhouse door that's the most important thing."
While many parents in Prince George's remain quiet on this issue, others are mobilizing, lobbying school board members, studying the legal history of desegregation and drawing up grass-roots alternatives. Parents contemplating proposed school closings and a bus commute across the county recite a litany of complaints: a longer school day, a tiring ride for children and, for parents, the difficulty in getting to school for meetings and to rescue children when they become ill during the school day.
"I don't understand why they would do this," said Alicia Weeden, whose son would be bused nearly 7 miles to kindergarten next year from Landover to Beltsville under the Green recommendations. "We should keep them here, closer to us, so if something happens we could get to them."
There are other perceived problems. Marlton Elementary parents are upset because the Green recommendations would close Patuxent Elementary and send 266 pupils to Marlton, crowding the "open-space" school, where several classes share large rooms.
While some parents decry desegregation's impact on their children, there is no argument among Murphy, school board members, plaintiffs and outside experts that an integrated school system is ideal.
"Research shows that children in integrated schools do better," said David Tatel, a lawyer with extensive experience in desegregation, who is associated with the Washington firm that represents the NAACP. "Black children do better academically and white children do no worse."
Murphy said, "It would be ideal if we could have integrated schools in every community."
But given present housing patterns, Murphy continued, "It is impossible to bring all schools within the guidelines" established by the court for integration: no more than 80 percent and no less than 10 percent black, unless students are bused out of neighborhoods that are already integrated. And "it's morally incorrect to disrupt integrated neighborhoods."
The only alternative to shifting children out of already integrated neighborhoods, Murphy said, is the long bus rides called for in the Green report. Kaufman has told school officials that bus rides must not exceed 35 minutes, but the Green panel contended that longer rides should be allowed.
The panel suggested that the time on the bus be used for learning, a suggestion that drew ridicule from educators and parents who pointed to the often chaotic conditions arising from 60 students on a bus.
Murphy has argued that one-race schools are acceptable if they offer an "educational experience equal to those in other schools."
And courts have allowed school districts to leave some schools outside racial balance guidelines when "nothing further could be done" to desegregate, according to Hassett. Students in those schools, however, must be offered compensation of superior educational programs, he said.
Nevertheless, Hassett said, the Prince George's board has not yet shown the court that it is impossible to bring all schools within the guidelines.
"If we never try it, it is definitely impossible" to balance school enrollments, said Thomas Newman, a spokesman for the county NAACP. "If we make the attempt and say this is why not . . . then take a look at other options."
The following middle schools would be closed under some alternatives in the Green report: Benjamin Stoddert, G. Gardner Shugart, Gwynn Park, Kenmoor, Samuel Ogle and Walker Mill.
The following elementary schools would be closed under some alternatives: Barnaby Manor, Berkshire, Bond Mill, Bradbury Heights, Capitol Heights, Carmody Hills, Chapel Forge, Columbia Park, Concord, District Heights, Doswell E. Brooks, Flintstone, Forest Heights, Glassmanor, Glenarden Woods, Green Valley, Heather Hills, High Bridge, Hillcrest Heights, Hollywood, John H. Bayne, Kenmoor, Longfields, Lyndon Hills, Mattaponi, Matthew Henson, Melwood, Montpelier, Owens Road, Patuxent, Rockledge, William Paca, Woodridge and Yorktown.
The following elementary schools would be paired under some alternatives in the Green proposal: Apple Grove, Barnaby Manor, Berkshire, Bond Mill, Bradbury Heights, Chapel Forge, Cooper Lane, Deerfield Run, District Heights, Dodge Park, Doswell E. Brooks, Flintstone, Francis T. Evans, G. Gardner Shugart, Glassmanor, Green Valley, Heather Hills, Henry G. Ferguson, Harmony Hall, High Bridge, Hillcrest Heights, Hyattsville, James H. Harrison, John Carroll, John H. Bayne, Kenilworth, Laurel, Lewisdale, Longfields, Mattaponi, Melwood, Montpelier, Oakcrest, Overlook, Paint Branch, Pointer Ridge, Rogers Heights, Samuel Ogle, Shadyside, Tulip Grove, University Park, Valley View and Yorktown.