- The Washington Times - Monday, August 27, 2001

The doors will open at 9:30 a.m. today for the 600 students of the new $12 million Robert R. Gray Elementary, bringing to a close almost three decades of school busing in the Prince George's County community of Fairmount Heights.
Mandatory busing began in Prince George's as a result of a lawsuit that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed against the county in 1972. More than 33,000 children were reassigned to schools to achieve racial balance in classrooms. Fairmont Heights students were bused to nine area schools, with some students spending as many as 40 minutes on the bus every morning to get to schools as far away as Hyattsville and Mount Rainier.
Since then, Prince George's County's racial profile has changed from nearly 80 percent white to nearly 80 percent black. By 1996, most of the students bused were blacks sent to predominantly black schools. In 1998, a federal judge ordered an end to mandatory busing, and the school system embarked on a mission to build 13 new facilities to return children to neighborhood schools.
The years of busing have taken a toll on the community. "It has been difficult to have a cohesive school community," said Gray Elementary Principal Prentice A. Christian Jr. Community members said they hope today marks a new beginning.
Gray Elementary, with a capacity of 790 students, is the area's first, and the county's largest, neighborhood school. "No other school in the county has the same significance in terms of returning to a neighborhood model … it is exciting to see a community rejoined," said parent activist Donna Hathaway Beck, a member of the boundary committee of the county's Committee of 100.
The county initially planned to open two schools this year, but funds became scarce and leaders decided to focus entirely on Gray. The other school, Rosaryville Elementary, is expected to open in early 2002.
Mr. Christian, in an interview two days before school was scheduled to open, said construction likely would continue even after opening day and the cafeteria wouldn't be open for another couple of weeks. In the meantime, food will be prepared at another school and transported to Gray.
Other kinks remain. Some parents are upset that bus service is not provided to children living within a 11/2-mile radius of the school. At a community meeting over the summer, parents said points on the road were frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes and were unsuitable for their children to walk.
Also, the school's before-and-after care program must be housed temporarily at Fairmont Heights High School.
Mr. Christian said he hopes any initial dissatisfaction with the new school will be outweighed by the advantages, including extracurricular opportunities for the pre-kindergartners to sixth-graders. "We will assign homework buddies, and children will have a chance to get involved in sports and other school activities as a group. Parents will have a chance to see each other at PTA meetings and other programs," he said.
Parents have been invited to attend the first day of class to learn more about the new school, Mr. Christian said.
A 30-year veteran of teaching, Mr. Christian retired last year as principal of Langston Hughes Middle School in Fairfax County. He said he decided to move to Prince George's after reading about the county's and Superintendent Iris Metts' Quest (Quality Education for Every Student) program.
"I have a passion for education, I love what I do," he said.
Robert R. Gray Elementary was named after a county veteran who was principal at a school torn down as a result of what school board member Catherine Smith described as "white flight," when whites in the community moved from areas inside the Beltway to Laurel and Bowie. Mr. Gray lives just a few blocks from the new school.
Mrs. Smith said, people now are returning to areas inside the Beltway, creating a need for more schools. "Schools are the heart of the community … the goal is to have community schools again," she said.
Community members say they support the idea of neighborhood schools, although they point out that the move could result in segregation. About 97 percent of the students at Gray are black.


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