From the crest of a gently sloped hill rises a massive, $30 million brick-and-glass testament to Prince George's County's vow to remake its school system.
Come August, roughly 1,000 students will walk through the doors of Charles Herbert Flowers High, a school of unrivaled quality constructed symbolically in the heart of the county: hundreds of new computers, 18 science laboratories, a 750-seat fine arts auditorium, two gymnasiums and a spacious dining hall.
But just who will those students be?
To the west is working-class Landover, a community that has deteriorated over the past two decades and is struggling to revitalize itself. To the east are Mitchellville and Lake Arbor, newer, fast-growing neighborhoods filled with affluent families on the rise whose taxes are fueling Prince George's prosperity.
And both of them want the school for their children.
The conflict highlights a new divide in Prince George's, which has shifted to majority black in recent decades, growing more affluent and educated as it changed. Now, the county is split along a nexus of social class.
To school board member Kenneth E. Johnson--who represents Mitchellville, Lake Arbor and parts of Landover--it reminds him of a time when whites didn't want to share schools with blacks. Now, he said, he hears some of the same attitudes from his affluent black neighbors aimed at poorer black residents.
"It almost makes me want to tell them to go somewhere," Johnson said. "I tell them, 'You need to check your attitude. You're not that far removed from the people in Landover.' "
And so the challenge before Prince George's is one that every other population in transition must face: building strong and thriving new communities while reinvesting in older neighborhoods that were once a steppingstone for the middle class.
As the county sets out to build 26 schools, many fear that failure to strike the right balance could produce separate and unequal schools--some overwhelmed by predominantly poor students and others filled with middle-class students who get better resources and educations.
"It would be very similar to what existed when desegregation took place in the early '70s, when white communities got the most," said Del. Darren M. Swain (D), who grew up in Landover and now represents that community.
Only now it's affluent communities--black and white--that could get more.
In the Kentland subdivision of Landover, Lorna Green and her husband, Bill Pimble, live with their sons, Chris and Matthew, in a modest duplex. Other duplexes and apartments line the street, where Toyotas and Dodges are parked curbside.
The couple moved here from the District 16 years ago in search of affordable housing. Over time, they watched the neighborhood change, often for the worse. Across the street, in a shopping center, a nightclub routinely attracted shootings and other violence.
Under community pressure, the club recently lost its liquor license and closed, but Lorna Green said efforts to revitalize the area have been sluggish.
"We have had problems with ongoing drug dealers selling in the middle of the street in the daytime," said Green, an administrative assistant at the nearby Giant Food headquarters. "The rental properties surrounding us have not helped the situation because people there really don't care."
Most Landover residents do not live in poverty--the median family income is $49,885, according to a 1998 report, and the average home value is $110,000. But the community has deteriorated in recent years, and many residents blame busing for that.
When the desegregation order came in 1972, many white families began fleeing the county and its public schools. As enrollments fell, dozens of schools were closed--most of them inside the Capital Beltway in increasingly black neighborhoods. Students who lived there were bused to predominantly white schools elsewhere in Prince George's to help integrate them.
John Rosser, a parent activist who grew up in Landover, researched the issue and said that between 1973 and 1983, 73 schools were shuttered--54 of them inside the Beltway and 19 outside.
Landover took the biggest hit of all. A former elementary school in Kentland was sold and turned into a private day-care center; the old junior high in nearby Palmer Park became the county's police headquarters. Several dozen other schools were razed and the land sold.
"If you wanted black kids to make a [racial] balance, you'd get them from Landover," said Theresa Dudley, a mother and school activist who lives down the street from the Greens. "They destroyed our community when they took away something that is supposed to keep us together, like a school."
Students who live within a two-mile radius of the Greens' home attend nine county high schools. Chris Green, 15, a ninth-grader at Parkdale High in Riverdale, sees school friends during the day and his neighborhood friends after school or on weekends.
If he stays late for Junior ROTC activities, Chris takes the late bus home or waits for his father or mother to pick him up. He's rarely able to catch a ride with a friend, since few from his neighborhood attend Parkdale.
But more important, his mother said, is how busing has affected parents' roles in schools. "Depending on the parents, they might not have time to get across the county for a PTA meeting," she said. "There's nothing to pull them in to make them get involved."
Enrollments surged by more than 20,000 students in the 1990s, but money for school construction didn't keep pace--only four new schools were opened from 1990 to 1998. Montgomery County, which saw a 25,000-student increase, added 19 schools during the same period.
By the mid-1990s, Prince George's public school enrollment had become about 70 percent African American, and county and school leaders began discussing the need to end the desegregation busing and build schools.
The initial plan, approved in the 1998 federal court settlement that ended busing, was to build 13 schools, most of them inside the Beltway. But within months, county leaders revised their estimates and announced that 26 new schools would be needed.
The ambition of the plan was heartening to many Prince Georgians, and the anticipated opening of the first new high school in 24 years has excited many residents. But it also has raised concerns about whether there'd be enough money to accomplish all that while addressing the immediate needs of older, crowded schools that continued to wait for improvements.
"There's never enough money to go for renovations because it's easier for politicians to get behind new schools," Theresa Dudley said. "But our [older] schools have been carrying the burden and have been stressed for so long that we have to look to accommodate those schools as well. You look at older high schools and see nothing has been done for a very long time."
Shopping for Schools
The scenery changes quickly heading east from Landover, so that crossing over the Beltway and into Mitchellville is almost like arriving in a different county.
Peggy and Wayne Martin and their daughter, Lindsay, live here in a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes and landscaped yards, with Range Rovers and Mercedes-Benzes at the end of long driveways.
In the predominantly black neighborhoods that make up Mitchellville and Lake Arbor, the median family income ranges from $79,846 to $100,597, and the average home value is $219,000. Many residents are growing increasingly unhappy about sending their children to crowded, poorly performing schools.
Peggy Martin recalls a conversation with several neighbors about two years ago, when she moved in from Texas.
"They told me to put my daughter in private school," said Martin, who works at Andrews Air Force Base. "They were like, 'Oh, no, do not put her in public school.' It was like a given among my neighbors."
She considered enrolling her daughter in one public middle school's science and technology magnet program--until she learned that only 8 percent of its students got satisfactory scores in math on a high-stakes state exam.
"The magnet program was a flop," said Martin, who instead enrolled Lindsay in a regular public school in Bowie, where 43 percent scored satisfactory or better on the math exam.
But Martin worries about whether her home will be included within the boundaries of nearby Flowers, which until last week was known simply as Ardmore High. She does not want Lindsay, now a seventh-grader, to attend Largo High, which has eight portable classrooms and low test scores.
"I am not going to sacrifice my child's education. We pay some pretty hefty property taxes, and we'd like to see something for them," Peggy Martin said.
She is echoed by Samuel Dean and Jacob Andoh, leaders of the Lake Arbor Civic Association. At a recent meeting in the community clubhouse--with its vaulted great room and fireplace--Dean, a retired government employee, and Andoh, a biomedical engineer, talked about their plans to start several after-school education clubs where neighborhood children could do science experiments, take field trips, produce literary publications and participate in cultural fairs.
"What we're trying to do is make not only this community but the county a model," Dean said. "We want quality--not only in development, but in the schools. We think it's very important because of the [racial] demographics in the county. We want to make sure we represent that demographic change [from majority white to majority black] in a way that is viewed in a positive manner."
So when officials announced the plan for new neighborhood schools, the Lake Arbor Civic Association quickly organized a campaign for one. With enrollment at nearby Kettering Middle School spilling over into 15 classroom trailers, the residents met with several county leaders last year to make their pitch.
Instead of building a middle school in Landover as the 1998 busing settlement had specified, the Lake Arbor group told the officials, it should be built in their fast-growing community.
"We simply did an objective needs assessment," Andoh said. "When you do that, all indicators point to the fact that our area is experiencing the greatest growth."
County Council member Ronald V. Russell (D-Mitchellville) joined the residents' campaign, noting that property taxes from the pricey homes in his district were funding some of the new school construction.
"We're collecting a fee [for school construction] on each new house," Russell said. "A lot comes from my district, and it should go right back in there."
School board member Johnson opposed the proposal because he thought it would re-segregate community schools along economic lines. Later, noting that several middle schools were bursting at the seams, he agreed to a plan to build new middle schools in Landover and Lake Arbor.
But part of the compromise was that officials decided to scrap plans for a new middle school in Oxon Hill, a community whose crowded schools are expected to see even more enrollment from growth targeted for that area.
County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), a former development lawyer who lives in Upper Marlboro, has made no secret of his desire to build the county into a black middle-class mecca by encouraging the creation of communities like Lake Arbor and Mitchellville.
Developers said Curry, who grew up in Bladensburg inside the Beltway, regularly implores them to revitalize inner-Beltway areas as well as to bring upscale growth to more affluent communities.
But Johnson and others fear that Curry's influence will bring new schools to affluent areas first. In addition to the deletion of the Oxon Hill middle school, two schools slated for inner-Beltway communities have been delayed because of environmental problems and cost concerns.
Late last year, the county Board of Education was shocked to learn that Curry and new Superintendent Iris T. Metts had agreed to have the county commit several million dollars to build four elementary schools earlier than planned.
"When I hear from parents, they always say something about overcrowded classrooms," Metts explained at the time. "Any attempt from the county to speed up new schools seemed good to me."
But the agreement was not as simple as that. Metts, it turned out, had endorsed Curry's proposal to move up construction of an elementary school in Upper Marlboro near a proposed upscale housing development that Curry has advocated.
Beech Tree is a proposed subdivision of 2,400 units that would include single-family homes priced above $300,000, a championship Greg Norman-designed golf course, a 33-acre lake, hiking trails and other amenities. But it has been halted by a two-year-old county law that limits development in areas where schools would become severely crowded by the growth.
School officials said Curry was more interested in solving Beech Tree's problems than addressing school crowding.
"We're building schools faster than [at any time] in the modern history of Prince George's," Curry responded. "I think all that's happened here is some people are conveniently confusing school capacity with development control."
Encouraging upscale development will bring new taxpayers who can help pay for more new schools, reasoned County Council member Audrey E. Scott (R-Bowie). "We must take the hard approach to raising money, which is to increase the accessible base of taxpayers," she said.
Recently, Metts presented a plan to improve all county schools, hoping parents would see that she intends to produce equity throughout the system. But the price tag is nearly $3 billion, and most county leaders said it will be virtually impossible to fund such a plan.
"We must stop the two-countyness and concentrate on building up the inner core," said former school board chairman Alvin Thornton, who represented an inner-Beltway district. "If we don't develop the infrastructure, we'll have to deal with it at some point."
Balancing the interests of the older, poorer communities and newer, affluent residents of Prince George's will be an arduous process. Superintendent Metts proposed attendance boundaries last week for the new high school in Springdale. The school board plans two public hearings before adopting boundaries next month.
But Flowers represents just the beginning of the Prince George's effort to rebuild the school system to serve all students equitably.
Over the next decade, school board and county leaders will make similar judgments again and again, deciding where to build new schools, which to rehabilitate and in what order to do all of it.
For Lorna Green and Peggy Martin, the boundary lines that ultimately are drawn around Flowers High will tell them whether Prince George's is where they'll raise and educate their children.
Lorna Green shakes her head when she thinks about the schools her sons face if they don't get into Flowers: DuVal, Fairmont Heights or Bladensburg. They are three of the county's oldest, lowest-achieving high schools. Green is most concerned about Bladensburg, which has suffered infestations of mice and roaches and repeatedly has been overlooked as the county funded other projects. Curry, who graduated from Bladensburg, has suggested tearing it down and building a new high school.
"My children will not go to Bladensburg, no way," Green said. "I don't think anyone would want to go there."
The Martins, too, have weighed their options if their daughter does not get into Flowers. They said they may put Lyndsay in private school or move to Montgomery County.
Drawing the Lines
This fall, Prince George's County will open Charles Herbert Flowers High School, its first new public high school in 24 years. The maps and charts below show how the proposed enrollment footprint of the new school would affect the boundaries, enrollments and demographics of 13 of the county's other high schools.
School 1999 2004
Bladensburg 75.4% 95.8%
Bowie 129.3 122.2
Central 106.3 102.6
Crossland 77.8 79.7
DuVal 80.8 106.9
Fairmont 93.3 100.8
Forestville 72.6 88.6
High Point 92.6 102.4
Largo 121.5 105.1
Northwestern 97.9 91.9
Parkdale 106.3 97.2
Roosevelt 138.0 111.5
Suitland 98.4 105.9
Charles Herbert Flowers n/a 95.4
School 1999 2004
Bladensburg 76.7% 76.6%
Bowie 46.3 36.1
Central 84.6 96.5
Crossland 94.2 92.7
DuVal 92.5 83.8
Fairmont 93.3 98.6
Forestville 98.3 97.0
High Point 53.7 52.7
Largo 96.5 94.2
Northwestern 69.2 62.9
Parkdale 77.3 75.6
Roosevelt 57.9 56.2
Suitland 91.7 96.8
Charles Herbert Flowers n/a 96.0
School 1999 2004
Bladensburg 37.0% 35.6%
Bowie 9.4 4.8
Central 32.3 34.5
Crossland 21.8 21.1
DuVal 25.9 24.2
Fairmont 31.6 33.5
Forestville 43.5 38.4
High Point 29.7 28.4
Largo 13.5 12.4
Northwestern 34.1 31.2
Parkdale 36.0 33.1
Roosevelt 16.7 21.0
Suitland 15.7 18.9
Charles Herbert Flowers n/a 21.6
In the past quarter-century, Prince George's population has shifted to majority black and become more wealthy and educated. The anticipated opening of the new high school has created tension between more affluent families, such as those living in Mitchellville, and working-class families, such as those in Landover, over who will attend the school.
SOURCE: Prince George's County Public Schools