In his 20 years of teaching at Kenmoor Elementary, James Neelon has watched enrollment at the Landover school change from almost all white to almost all black. He remembers turning to the other teachers a few years ago and asking, "Where have all the white ones gone?"
So this fall, when Neelon's sixth graders showed up the first day and two-thirds of the children were white, it was seen as a notable success for desegregation.
"People said it couldn't be done in the county," said Prince George's County school spokesman Brian J. Porter. "White parents wouldn't go into a predominantly black school, in a predominantly black neighborhood, over a long travel distance. These programs, in the first year, proved that wrong."
The programs implemented this fall in the county are part of a desegregation plan that includes a dozen magnet schools, half of them offering special programs for talented students and the other half before- and after-school day care.
The desegregation plan represents an enormous change of strategy for the county, which had relied solely, but unsuccessfully, on mandatory busing to improve racial balance in its schools. Kenmoor, where white students were drawn to talented and gifted programs, is part of what officials say is a showcase desegregation effort and welcome progress after 13 years of bitter litigation.
Neelon said he likes what he sees this year at Kenmoor. "Yes, I do believe it works. Kids are kids. They play together, they eat together . . . . They get along fine."
But some say it is too early to tell whether this strategy will accomplish what so far has eluded the county.
"I'm not sure it's the best method to effect what we're trying to accomplish," said Richard (Steve) Brown, executive director of the county NAACP, which filed the original desegregation lawsuit against the schools in 1972. "I wouldn't have chosen it."
Brown and others, primarily in the black community, say they are willing to give the plan a chance, but, in the meantime, are raising ques- tions, including whether magnet schools benefit white children more than black children. White students are, by design, allowed into the talented programs in larger numbers, and, at the day-care magnets, black students wait to get in while spots are held open for whites. In a county where 60 percent of the students are black, enrollment in the talented program this year is 30 percent black.
Also, it appears that talented magnet programs improve racial balance on paper while classrooms stay largely homogenous. In some cases, the program has created pockets of white students within predominantly black schools. (For purposes of desegregation, all nonblack students are considered as a group.)
While Neelon's class of talented students consists of one Korean, 11 black and 21 white students, a sixth grade class down the hall -- where students are not in the talented program -- remains overwhelmingly black.
School Superintendent John A. Murphy, who engineered the plan, said many of the problems will be solved over time. "We're feeling our way through," he said, adding: "We have fewer naysayers than we did six months ago."
The magnet plan was implemented, with the approval of the federal judge overseeing the lawsuit, as an alternative to more extensive busing and school closings recommended by a court-appointed panel. According to an agreement between the NAACP and the Board of Education, if the plan does not meet desegregation goals by the 1987-88 school year, a mandatory busing plan will go into effect.
The magnet concept works by attracting white students such as Kevin Joseph, a 12-year-old seventh grader, away from his mostly white Bowie neighborhood to a magnet program for talented students at Walker Mill, a predominantly black middle school in Capitol Heights.
"Some of my friends . . . wish they had come here," Kevin said recently. "Some of their parents were afraid it was going to be too bad, and they didn't like the area. Now they wish they'd come here."
There is no argument about the success of the magnet plan in improving racial balance overnight at eight of the 12 magnet schools: Black enrollment at Kenmoor, for example, dropped from 94 percent to 78 percent.
"We brought white people in, and the white people have stayed," said Murphy. "The jury is still out . . . but right now, I feel very positive about the direction we're going."
But Murphy acknowledges there are still questions about how well the system works.
One of the problems is that the "work place" magnets, so named because they offer before- and after-school day care near parents' work places, have been much less effective than the talented magnets in drawing white students. Only two of six work place schools are within court-established guidelines for racial balance, which call for no more than 80 percent and no less than 10 percent black enrollment.
A related question is whether white children are benefiting more. At the work place schools, for example, spaces remain open for white students, who are needed to improve racial balance at those schools, while about 300 black children occupy waiting lists to get in.
That is in contrast to the talented magnets, which prompted an overwhelming response from white parents. About 1,900 white children applied for 1,000 available slots, and their parents waited anxiously this summer as the spaces were filled by lottery.
"We're ecstatic," said Seabrook resident Kathy Hinkal of the magnet program her sons attend at Glenarden Woods Elementary. "We live three houses from our neighborhood school, so for us to put our kids on a bus for 40 minutes was a big decision."
Because of the tilt toward white students, NAACP director Brown said the talented and gifted program "was the worst thing to use . . . . The victims of this legally segregated school system were the black youngsters, not the white youngsters."
Part of the difficulty is that, in order to improve racial balance at predominantly black schools, magnet programs must draw more white than black students. Also, the conventional tests used to identify talented students tend to find fewer minority than white children.
School officials counter that all students in magnet schools benefit by the programs. In talented schools, for example, students have equal access to new computer labs. And in work place magnets, students already in the school are eligible for the day care service. Because the programs are placed in predominantly black schools, officials say, they benefit more black students.
Sensitive to the potential for "schools within schools," teachers and principals have been watching the social interaction between the new students and their "hosts."
"It's helping both groups, talented and regular," said Walker Mill Principal Linda Duffy. "It's helping them change stereotypes. The black kids see the mix, that bright kids are every race."
While some students say there are racial divisions, others say the gap is just between the new students and the host students, regardless of race.
Walker Mill eighth grader Marian Carter said her school has changed with the onslaught of 200 new students. "There's sort of a social barrier . . . . The new students -- they call them 'nerds,' " said Carter, one of about 25 Walker Mill students who was eligible to enter the talented programs. "A lot of people just want to cling together, and they don't want to mix."
Another, continuing problem is that changing demographics in the county work against desegregation efforts. County neighborhoods tend to remain racially homogenous, and black enrollment continues to rise sharply, from 26 percent in 1972 to 60 percent this year. Projections show that black enrollment will be about 67 percent by 1989, exacerbating the difficulty of spreading a dwindling pool of white children around the county.
While the magnet programs have brought or kept eight schools within the guidelines this year, four other schools without magnet programs fell out of "balance" as their black enrollment rose over the 80 percent mark.
The racial and geographical makeup of the county led officials and the NAACP to agree on a second component of the magnet program: 10 predominantly black schools that have been designated as "compensatory educational" schools. Officials say these schools cannot be desegregated because of their distance from white neighborhoods. In "compensation," they are receiving additional resources and new programs, and class size has been lowered.
While this part of the plan has not changed the overall racial balance of county schools, there are some who believe that these schools are the more valuable component.
"One of the key elements is showing you don't have to integrate schools in order to have quality education," said James Garrett, who organized the "Coalition of Blacks Against Unnecessary Busing."
While such questions remain about the mechanics of how to desegregate, Murphy said one the biggest obstacles is a less tangible challenge -- changing attitudes.
"We still have to overcome some of the perceptions whites have of black communities . . . ," he said. "These are nice neighborhoods, but people who live far away have an entirely different perception."
Nevertheless, he claims as one of the first-year successes a noticeable new optimism about the school system. "We have really turned the corner about attitudes," he said. "This is going to work, and it is going to solve our problems."