Jennifer Lindburg and her father pull into the parking lot of Damascus High School in the family's Toyota at 6:15 a.m. each weekday morning to wait for the seventh grader's school bus.
Five minutes later, the bus rolls into the schoolyard in upper northwest Montgomery County, and James Lindburg watches as his daughter climbs on board for a 1 1/2-hour trip to Takoma Park Intermediate School in the southeastern tip of the county, a trip that is nearly six times as long as the average commute for students bused to their local schools.
On most days, Jennifer will not return to her white, clapboard-style Damascus home until after 5 p.m., leaving her just enough time for supper and several hours of homework before bedtime.
It is a grueling schedule for a 12-year-old who is just beginning to worry about school dances, stylish clothes and boyfriends.
"This is not the ideal way of maintaining a social life for a young teen-ager," acknowledged Jennifer's mother Aileen. But the Lindburgs and hundreds of other parents in Montgomery County are putting up with erratic transportation schedules, long bus rides, extra-long school days and anxiety over their children's safety in order to send them to magnet programs in the Blair cluster of schools in southeast Montgomery County.
Montgomery County does not forcibly bus students; the magnet program is voluntary. Its primary goal is to improve racial balance in schools with high proportions of minorities by attracting white students from other parts of the county to take part in special academic programs. Although the county has a smaller magnet program in the elementary schools in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area, the program involving the longest bus rides and the majority of students is in the Blair cluster, a group of 13 schools in Takoma Park and East Silver Spring that has an average minority enrollment of 60 percent.
No one expresses doubt that the magnet programs are academically sound. Students in the magnet programs at Takoma Park Intermediate School and Blair High School take advanced science and math courses and learn how to operate computers. In the Oakview Elementary School program, students spend their day learning how to be fluent in French or Spanish.
But in spite of the magnets' pull, some parents question whether they are doing what is best for their children as they send them miles across the county, the sixth largest in the state. They worry that by spending so much time on the bus, their children may be giving up too much by way of friends and extracurricular activities.
Lynda Torgesen said her 13-year-old son Sam dropped out of the magnet school program at Takoma Park Intermediate and returned to Baker Junior High School in Damascus because of transportation problems and because the bus schedule did not allow him to be involved in tennis and soccer programs at the school.
"In my opinion, for children to go such a great distance to school they need to be more in the genius category and not too interested in a whole lot of extracurricular activities, because there's not enough time for them to give to their studies and be a normal kid at the same time," said Lynda Torgesen.
"The transportation was very poor," she added. "There were a couple of nights when we didn't get home until 7:30 p.m., and most of the time the bus was a half-hour late . . . . One-third of the time he was late to school because the bus was late."
Jennifer Lindburg, who is attracted to Takoma Park's computer program, worries that the children with whom she attended elementary school are forgetting her. She said she frequently feels left out of social events in her neighborhood, and she complains that she is not allowed to attend the dances at a local junior high school. But what annoys her most about commuting to a magnet program is the long bus ride. "I get up in the dark and I come home in the dark," she said. "Sometimes I ask myself why I'm doing this."
Cici Hyoun, an eighth grader who lives in Silver Spring, also complains about rising at 5:30 and leaving her home at 6:45 to catch the 7 a.m. bus to Takoma Park Intermediate. Once she has been dropped off, she spends about 45 minutes doing homework or practicing on an Apple IIe computer while she waits for school to begin. "I have a problem waking up," said Hyoun, who stays active on the tennis team, the science club, the math team, the student council, the yearbook club and the cheerleading squad. "And I normally go to sleep at 11 or midnight. If I could just get eight hours' sleep, I'd be so happy."
The disadvantages that come with leaving a neighborhood school to attend a magnet program far from home are not lost on many parents.
"It's a great program, and I have nothing but praise for the Takoma Park people, but the transportation is what is indirectly sabotaging the program," James Lindburg said. "I don't think most people are willing to have their children on a bus for an hour and a half."
Madelaine Fliegel of Damascus and a group of parents who live in the northern part of the county have begun pressing school officials for a centrally located gifted program at the junior high level. The only one in existence now is at Takoma Park.
For the last three years, Fliegel's 11-year-old son Jason has been bused to a special class for gifted students at Lakewood Elementary School in Rockville. When Jason graduates next year, he will have to choose between attending Takoma Park or Baker Junior High, his home school in Damascus.
Fliegel said she will not continue subjecting her son to the hour-long bus ride just so he can attend a special program. "I will not sacrifice his socialization process in order to send him to Takoma Park, but I won't let his education fall by the wayside either," she said.
Until last year, the school system did not provide bus transportation to magnet programs in the Blair cluster. This year 10 buses take 238 students from all parts of the county to magnet programs there.
John Haffner, a transportation planner for the county school system, said he hopes to get two more buses next year for the extra number of children expected in the Blair magnet programs. "Right now we're doing the best we can with what we've got," he said. On the buses, the children spend time doing homework, and some of them, especially the youngest ones, nap.
Thomas Quelet, the principal at Takoma Park Intermediate, said he rode the bus from Gaithersburg to his school several weeks ago to see what it was like. He said he was amazed to see a group of students studying for a geography test. "They drew a map in the fog on the window" to work on, he said.
School officials are not oblivious to the problems of children who commute to school from far away.
At Blair High School and Takoma Park Intermediate, officials have added special buses that leave one hour late three days a week so students can participate in after-school activities and sports or stay late for special tutoring.
Takoma Park opens its computer lab at 7:30 a.m. so children who arrive early on the bus will have a warm, safe place to study.
Blair and Takoma Park have begun pairing families who live in the neighborhood with children who are bused in from far away.
In case of a sudden snowstorm or other emergency, students can stay with the local family overnight. And if a student wants to stay after school for a dance or a play, he or she can go to the local family's home until the event begins.
"The biggest problem these children have is not the buses but leaving the support structure of their home and community behind, and we have to work to give it back to them," said Michael Haney, coordinator of the Blair magnet program.
Elaine Seikaly, the magnet coordinator at Takoma Park Intermediate, said she sympathizes with parents who would like a magnet program closer to home. But the idea is not practical, she said.
"The magnet programs are set up to deal with a different objective, voluntarily improving racial balance, and to do that it's important not to compete with magnet schools," she said.
Betty Morgan, the principal of Oakview, a school with two successful magnet programs that draw 320 students, about 70 percent of them from outside the Blair cluster, said magnet programs by their nature entail sacrifice.
"People make sacrifices to have educational choices," she said. "That's part of what a magnet program is all about."
Tye-Scott Briscoe, at 6 years of age, is one of the youngest pupils taking a long bus trip to attend a magnet program. He rides the bus for an hour from Germantown to his first grade French immersion class at Oakview. In the morning he is dropped off at the bus stop by his father William, and in the afternoon a teen-age friend walks him to a baby sitter's house.
There have been minor annoyances. Once, the bus broke down and Tye-Scott was almost three hours late. And this year, for an entire week, Tye-Scott's parents had to drive him to school after he "lost the privilege" of riding on the bus because he had been "raising hell," according to his mother, Nance Briscoe.
Tye-Scott no longer misbehaves on the bus and is speaking fluent French at school and at home with his father. "He races himself. He challenges his peers, his teachers and his parents," Nance Briscoe said. "That French program is the best thing that could happen to a kid."