Don't even think about redrawing the boundaries that define who goes to top-rated Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.

When Board of Education member Ana Sol Gutierrez (3rd District) recently suggested that Whitman could avoid crowding by sending some students to nearby Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, she set off a political brawl that highlighted fault lines of race and status-consciousness in the affluent suburb.

Angry parents in the Whitman district exploded in protest. Seven hundred families sent letters of objection to Montgomery School Superintendent Paul L. Vance. Hundreds signed petitions. A contingent of Whitman boosters testified at a school board meeting wearing buttons and T-shirts proclaiming themselves "Whitman Cluster United."

It didn't seem to matter that the proposal doesn't have much of a chance because B-CC is projected to reach capacity in five years without taking in any Whitman students.

Whitman parents said their offensive was necessary to protect their children's access to a nationally recognized school that is so academically competitive that officials have stopped the practice of ranking students in classes. But along the way, the outcry exposed the emotional subtext that so often clouds such debates.

"I was not prepared for the intensity and volume of the reaction," Vance said. "Whitman parents are understandably proud of their school. The downside is that B-CC now feels set upon and put down. . . . The damage has been done, and we need to take steps to correct it."

The two schools have much in common. Their academic offerings are similar, and each draws students from the same affluent corner of southern Montgomery County.

Whitman students scored an average 100 points higher than B-CC's on the last Scholastic Assessment Test, tops in the county. But test scores don't delineate the chief difference between the schools.

Demographics do.

About 70 percent of the students at Whitman are white, and 17 percent of the remaining students are Asian. Only a few dozen students qualify for subsidized lunches. Only 64 students, or 4.2 percent of Whitman's 1,533 students, are African American, and about 116, or 7.6 percent, are Latino.

By contrast, 236 students, 22 percent of B-CC's total enrollment of 1,076, are African American, and 15.4 percent, or 165 students, are Latino. About one in 10 B\-CC students qualifies for low-cost meals.

Whitman's claim as the county's best high school is underscored by the physical appearance of the two schools. In 1992, Whitman was rebuilt completely on 31 acres in the middle of a prosperous suburban neighborhood. B-CC sits in the middle of downtown Bethesda, a traditional-looking but steadily deteriorating school building constructed in 1934.

Whitman and B-CC parents have tried to steer clear of the racial and ethnic overtones of the debate, arguing that their opposition has nothing to do with B-CC's higher proportion of minority students. But talk of Whitman's "suburban" locale and B-CC's "urban" environment permeates their comments.

"The families who live in the Whitman district are educated; they have good jobs," said John Vorhes, a Whitman parent and owner of a direct marketing and design company.

"I can't speak for B-CC," he said. "I don't know if they have the same strata of people over there. All I know is that I've seen graffiti on their roof, and I'm sure if that school was over here, the graffiti wouldn't be there."

Comments such as that have prompted charges of elitism from B-CC parents and students, who derisively call Whitman "Nordstrom High" because the school's exterior bears a strong resemblance to an upscale shopping center.

Some B-CC students can't forget the debate they have witnessed.

"They are always looking down on us," said B-CC sophomore Peter Rosenberg.

"They think they are better than we are because they have so much money," said Pat Boyd, a B-CC junior. "If they don't want to come here, then don't come. We're not asking them to come."

Susan E. Eaton, a Harvard researcher who wrote a study last year criticizing Montgomery's school desegregation record, said the county school system invites such tensions by failing to correct racial and ethnic imbalances.

"When you set up a system with demographic inequities, it inevitably perpetuates and exacerbates stereotypes and images," Eaton said. "As that happens, the inequities and perceptions can grow, and if you are not careful, those inequities will become real."

The school system should confront those impressions, agreed Willis Hawley, dean of the College of Education at the University of Maryland.

"You can't impose these things on people, you have to build a foundation," said Hawley, whose daughter attended B-CC in the mid-1970s. "But the nice thing about Montgomery County is that you have the opportunity to do that without the same level of anxiety that often is apparent in urban areas where the only people of another color are poor people."

Montgomery school board members moved quickly last week to relieve the feelings of rejection felt by B-CC partisans in the boundary debate. Wednesday, the board tentatively approved a $95,000 grant to help B-CC enhance its academic programs.

Later this month, Vance plans to offer a plan that would use nearby school system property or take other steps to relieve the crowding without changing boundaries.

The Whitman debate, Vance told board members, "has really cast a pall over {B-CC's} enthusiasm."

The flap began in late December, when school officials realized they had underestimated Whitman's future enrollment. Whitman was rebuilt only three years ago to accommodate 1,548 students. But already this year, Whitman has 1,533 students, and officials said next year's enrollment probably will exceed capacity by about 100 students.

To solve the problem, the school board asked its staff to draw up some options. Board member Gutierrez, a B\-CC alumna, suggested redrawing boundaries. "I think we have an obligation to examine all options, but I'm concerned that this issue has become as disruptive as it has become," she said later.

In short order, elementary, middle and high school PTAs sounded the alarm, and community associations took notice.

Soon the school district was blanketed with fliers warning that the school community would be ripped apart and property values would plummet.

Whitman parents had reason to fear the financial effects of losing their connection to the school.

"Apples to apples, a house in the Whitman district is easily worth 10 percent more" than a house in a nearby school district, said Mark Goldberg, a Bethesda area real estate agent and member of Whitman's Class of 1973. "Personally, I think B-CC is getting a bad rap; because it is a good school too."

Still, Goldberg said clients ask him "all the time" to show them homes in the Whitman district, about 60 percent of which sell for $300,000 to $400,000.

Gregory E. van der Vink, a geology professor for a local university consortium, said he and his wife, a 1977 B\-CC graduate, moved to the Whitman district after hearing about Whitman's sterling academic reputation. The environment sounded like a good destination for their children, ages 3 and 5.

"Let's face it, the two biggest investments any family makes are a house and an education," van der Vink said. "The reason people get so emotional about these {boundary changes} is that this is an issue that affects both of those investments. It's not snobbery or elitism."

A single mother, who asked not to be identified, sent school officials her daughter's report card, mostly A's and B's, to demonstrate the high quality of her daughter's Whitman training. The mother said she scrimped and saved to buy a small house last summer within the Whitman boundaries.

"It was a struggle. The purchase took four months to complete. During this time, my guiding light was the word Whitman,' " the woman wrote.

Others were more blunt.

"If our children are taken from the school closest to them and moved to B-CC, we will pull them out of the public schools or move to Virginia," wrote Chris Gersten and his wife, newspaper columnist Linda Chavez.

"I felt I had to be a little hyperbolic to get their attention," said Gersten, whose only child in the public schools is a junior at Whitman and unlikely to be affected by the suggested change.

Gersten said he recognizes B-CC is a good school. "But even if it is a good school, Whitman is a great school," Gersten said. "When D.C. parents want to pay tuition to attend Montgomery schools, their first choice is Whitman. They go on tours of the school like it is a private academy."

Sherry Davis, a real estate agent and parent of two recent B-CC graduates, said parents should measure children's education by more than test scores.

"I like the fact that my kids were exposed to that socioeconomic diversity. I think it definitely helped them when they went on to college," Davis said. "B-CC is the real world. It just is."

Among students, the rivalry between the two schools is real, and sometimes it reflects the ugly caricatures that each school is saddled with. At a basketball game between the two schools last month, a group of Whitman students chanted "wel-fare" across the court at B-CC teenagers in response to B-CC students' calling "al-coholics," a reference to Whitman students' well-publicized incidents of underage drinking.

But many students say the catcalls are not as mean-spirited as they may seem. Rather, they are like taunts between friends. When they are not in school, Whitman and B-CC students frequently shop at the same mall, attend the same movie theaters, dine at the same fast-food restaurants and compete in the same athletic leagues.

"Our PTA is making the biggest deal about how superior Whitman is. . . . What's the big deal?" asked Mackenzie Warren, a Whitman junior. "I think the people in the Whitman community are really spoiled. They can't settle for second best. I'd brag about going to B-CC."

Courtney Gaine, a Whitman senior, agreed.

"It's been totally blown out of proportion," she said. "I never think of B-CC as second best. It's just a local rivalry." CAPTION: Bethesda-Chevy Chase High students Asim Williams, Peter Rosenberg and Pat Boyd cheer at a game against Walt Whitman High. "If they don't want to come here, then don't come. We're not asking them to come," Boyd says. CAPTION: "Our PTA is making the biggest deal about how superior Whitman is. . . . What's the big deal?" Mackenzie Warren, right, asks while at the game with another Whitman student, Paula SaFreire. "I'd brag about going to B-CC." CAPTION: Students heading for classes fill the halls of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, a deteriorating building buit in 1934. CAPTION: COMPARING RIVAL SCHOOLS Characteristics of Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Walt Whitman high schools. All data are for the 1994 -- 95 school year, except where noted: Year built: BETHESDA -- CHEVY CHASE H.S.: ... 1934 WALT WHITMAN H.S.: ... Rebuilt in 1992 Enrollment: BETHESDA -- CHEVY CHASE H.S.: .. 1,076 WALT WHITMAN H.S.: ............. 1,533 Racial breakdown*: BETHESDA -- CHEVY CHASE H.S.: African American: ................ 22% American Indian: .................. 0.4% Asian: ............................ 7.1% Latino: .......................... 15.4% White: ........................... 55.1% WALT WHITMAN H.S.: African American: ................. 4.2% American Indian: .................. 0.2% Asian: ........................... 17.2% Latino: ........................... 7.6% White: ........................... 70.7% English as a Second Language students (percentage of enrollment): BETHESDA -- CHEVY CHASE H.S.: .... 10.8% WALT WHITMAN H.S.: ................ 7.6% College-bound students (1994 figures): BETHESDA -- CHEVY CHASE H.S.: .... 88.2% WALT WHITMAN H.S.: ............... 97.3% County average: .................. 86.6% Dropout rate (1993-1994): BETHESDA -- CHEVY CHASE H.S.: ..... 2.1% WALT WHITMAN H.S.: ................ 1.3% Average SAT scores (1993-1994): BETHESDA -- CHEVY CHASE H.S.: Math: ........................... 525 Verbal: ......................... 473 Total: .......................... 998 WALT WHITMAN H.S.: Math: ........................... 595 Verbal: ......................... 516 Total: ......................... 1111 National average: ............... 902 County average: ................. 992 Cost to operate (per student): BETHESDA -- CHEVY CHASE H.S.: $6,502 WALT WHITMAN H.S.: ........... $5,293 Average class size: BETHESDA -- CHEVY CHASE H.S.: .... 25.3 students WALT WHITMAN H.S.: ............... 27.5 students Percentage of students who receive free or reduced price meals: BETHESDA -- CHEVY CHASE H.S.: ..... 9.7% WALT WHITMAN H.S.: ................ 2.2% Number of suspensions (1993-94): BETHESDA -- CHEVY CHASE H.S.: .... 47 WALT WHITMAN H.S.: ............... 28 **Percentages may not equal 100% due to rounding. SOURCE: Montgomery County school system