Two years ago Seroun Meimei Wang, a Chevy Chase resident of Chinese and Armenian heritage, tried to enroll her daughter Mariam, 6, in the French immersion program at Oakview Elementary School in East Silver Spring.
Wang, a former French teacher, requested the transfer five times and each time it was denied because the Montgomery County public schools have a policy that makes it nearly impossible for a minority child to transfer into a school that has a high minority enrollment.
The problem finally ended on the day when Wang was to be interviewed about it by a network television reporter. "That same day I got a call from a school official who said we were accepted," she recalled recently.
The situation involving Wang is one example of the perplexing ironies that often arise when school officials set policies designed to balance the racial and ethnic mix of public schools.
Montgomery County is among many school districts wrestling with the problem of how to integrate their schools without resorting to massive busing. However, economic and social forces tend to counter their efforts because minorities are generally poorer and concentrate in pockets of lower-cost rental housing.
In Prince George's County, for example, a system of magnet schools was implemented this school year in an effort to satisfy a federal court order to improve integration after a dozen years of extensive busing failed to desegregate the county's schools.
Montgomery County's attempted solution was the transfer policy that worked against Wang, in conjunction with a magnet school program.
But today, more than 10 years after the first magnet schools were created, parents, civic leaders and even some school officials question whether the programs have worked as intended.
The transfer policy was aimed in particular at the Blair cluster, a group of 13 schools in East Silver Spring and Takoma Park. In those schools, Montgomery Blair High and its feeder schools, minority enrollments averaged more than 60 percent last year, compared with 30 percent countywide.
Under the policy, a pupil may transfer from the neighborhood school if the transfer does not contribute to crowding, if it allows the student to benefit from a special program at another school or if it does not hurt the racial balance of either the school left or the one entered.
"It angered me that I would be forced to stay in Chevy Chase because I was considered a minority," Wang said. "That hurt a lot."
In another instance a white 14-year-old, a ninth grader from Silver Spring, wanted to transfer from Blair High to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High so she could take more honors classes in the literary arts. She was turned down because the move would have upset the racial balance at Blair.
While no one flatly labels the magnet programs a failure, many concede they have fallen short of the goal. Instead of attracting more white pupils and lowering the number of minority pupils, they have had the opposite effect, some say.
"The magnet programs encourage minority kids to live inside the cluster and white kids to live outside the cluster," said Marilyn Piety, a vocal member of the Sligo-Branview Civic Association.
Superintendent Wilmer Cody acknowledged that "the main barrier to the idea of magnet programs is that most parents are satisfied with where their children are assigned."
In 1975, Blair High School was 32.4 percent minority, compared with 68 percent last year, although the figure is down to about 63 percent this year because of students who transferred to Blair after the closing of Northwood High School near Four Corners.
A study of all the transfers into and out of the Blair cluster schools between March 1984 and February 1985 shows that the net gain of white students was only seven and nonwhites 24.
One reason for the low number of transfers into the cluster, school officials said, is that until last year the school system did not provide transportation to pupils elsewhere who wanted to attend schools in the cluster. This year, transportation is provided to two schools.
Another problem school officials only recently began to address was that Blair did not have the space for significant numbers of new students.
"In hindsight the idea of magnet schools without space doesn't make a lot of sense," Cody said.
Many of the Blair cluster schools have undergone remodeling or expansion in recent years, with several other projects scheduled during the next few years.
The problems of space and transportation notwithstanding, some critics say the magnet programs can never significantly lower minority enrollments in the cluster because of the ever-growing numbers of refugees from Southeast Asia and Central America who are moving into cheap rental housing in the southeastern part of the county.
In the last 10 years the countywide minority pupil population has been climbing at about 2 percent a year, school officials said. It has jumped from 12 percent in 1975 to about 30 percent today. Half the minority population is black; the rest is Asian and Hispanic.
"The magnet programs have had some success, but not that originally intended, because of the demographic changes," said Roscoe Nix, president of the Montgomery County NAACP.
The one Blair cluster magnet that has succeeded, the French immersion program at Oakview where two-thirds of the pupils are white, has been criticized because its pupils have little contact with the rest of the student body.
School board member Sharon Difonzo said that although the magnet programs have not attracted enough white pupils from outside the cluster "to keep us out of the hot water we were inexorably headed toward," they have kept "the problem at bay."
Cody said that without the magnet programs the minority enrollments in the Blair cluster schools would be much higher than they are today.
Even so, one school in the cluster, New Hampshire Estates Elementary, is 91 percent minority and another, Rolling Terrace Elementary, is 78 percent minority.
Faced with the continued reality of growing numbers of minority pupils in the Blair cluster schools and the aging condition of many of the buildings, school officials decided this year to try a new approach to the Blair cluster's problems.
The board opted to remodel three elementary schools, to pair New Hampshire Estates with Oakview, which is about 42 percent minority if white pupils in French immersion are counted, and to keep the French immersion program at Oakview.
That decision has reopened debate on whether the magnet idea is working. Many Oakview parents and community leaders do not think the magnet programs are succeeding. They complain that their school is being used to solve the problems of the entire Blair cluster.
"If magnets are working well you shouldn't have to pair schools, and the fact they are pairing schools shows they are not working," said Dan Craig, an officer with the Oakview PTA and a member of the Sligo-Branview Civic Association.
"Their attitude is because one school has a leaky roof, the way we'll resolve it is to punch holes in the other schools," said Piety.
Piety said Oakview parents believe that the school board has penalized them for having one of the few successful magnet programs in the Blair cluster.
She said that because of the transfer policy, white Oakview parents who now must send their children to New Hampshire Estates for kindergarten through third grade will find it almost impossible to transfer their children into the French immersion program or other magnet programs inside the Blair cluster because the number of minority pupils at New Hampshire Estates is so high.
Piety said Oakview parents intend to appeal the school board's decision to the State Board of Education.
"We're looking into all of our options," she said.
Meanwhile, Seroun Meimei Wang said she anticipates having a hard time transferring her 4-year-old daughter Ani into the French immersion program next year.
Wang said that in the acceptance letter she was told her daughter Mariam got into the French program because she was a native speaker of French.
"What if there are other minority people who want to get in who don't speak French?" she asked. "I guess if you really want to get your child in, you would have to lie."