AS THE comprehensive Prince George's County school desegregation plan moved into action last week, there were hints of official disappointment that the plan's most promising innovation -- the "work-place schools" -- had not magically solved all their problems overnight. Like the popular magnet schools, work-place programs are designed to encourage voluntary desegregation at predominantly black schools by offering working parents an attractive option -- in this case, that of dropping their children off at a school near their job in the morning and then picking them up on the way home. The schools also offer after-school programs, such as music and dance lessons and homework assistance, to keep the kids busy till as late as 6 p.m.
The six Prince George's County work-place schools have already proved hugely attractive to parents of black children, 110 of whom are enrolled; 1,000 more are waiting for slots. But to bring the schools as a whole within court-mandated county guidelines, officials want more white children in the work-place programs. Only 103 children have signed up in the 420 slots set aside for whites. School officials say some black families are upset that those slots are still being held open -- the result of the school board's determination to make the work-place schools succeed as an instrument of desegregation.
Desegregation would be a laudable outcome of work-place schools, of course, and it served as a good reason to launch the experiment. But a slow start in that direction should in no way discourage advocates of this program, which promises other social benefits. Work place schools ingeniously address several of the most pressing problems faced by working parents: the problem of transportation, the problem of affordable and competent day care before and after school hours and the more general problem of "latchkey children" who may feel lonely or abandoned when both parents work full time.
Beyond their convenience, work-place programs offer possibilities for the kind of family togetherness so mourned by traditionalists. Parents and children who share a long commute may get to know one another a bit better; families who accept the option of a school near the father's work place, rather than the mother's, may experience a healthy balancing of roles. And mere physical proximity during the day counts for a lot. "If they call and say they forgot their lunch," says a parent in a Houston program, "it's no problem for me to run over and drop off some lunch money."
"We're dealing with children and the needs of children," said Sarah Johnson, a school board vice chairman, when the plan was drafted. "If we meet some other criteria along the way, that's fine." That order of priorities is exactly right. Work-place schools are such a useful concept that other benefits are bound to follow. Give them time.