- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2001

Prince George's County, Md. parents and public school officials are considering with a critical eye a plan to add more magnet schools and create neighborhood "theme" schools to serve the county's 134,000 pupils.
The plan, which has been in the works for a few years now, recently got a boost with a $4 million federal grant to expand the county's magnet program. Magnet schools specialize in certain subjects, such as science or music, in addition to regular classes. The county has only one such school, Thomas Pullen Elementary, which specializes in creative and performing arts. Forty other schools contain magnetlike programs.
Although a plan was submitted on Sept. 6, county sources yesterday said it might be a long time before any definite changes are made, given the plan's lack of details. "They gave the community the bare minimum," the source said. "There still are some glaring omissions and errors."
Some board members oppose converting more schools into magnet schools if it means busing students away from their neighborhoods. They fear it looks too much like forced busing, a nationwide school desegregation effort that was abolished by the courts years ago, but which still lingers in Prince George's County.
Many students still spend up to an hour each way riding buses to schools outside their neighborhoods in keeping with mandatory busing rules.
About 26,000 of the county's students attend schools that offer magnetlike programs. Some 12,000 of them are bused.
Magnet program director Susan Miller has submitted two draft plans to the county school board one that divides the county into geographic boundaries, which would mean shorter bus rides for most students, and another based on current administrative boundaries.
The school administration is not backing either plan so far, according to Superintendent Iris T. Metts.
The county's magnet program began in the mid-1980s as a means to end racial segregation, and has since gathered support among some who believe their children gain from specialized programs.
A 1998 Memorandum of Understanding signed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the county and the school system called for turning more schools into magnet schools. Critics, however, say neither plan goes far enough.
Under the three-year grant, four county schools would be converted into magnet schools, two in the north and two in the southern part of the county. Of them, one in each region will be dedicated to a Montessori program and the other to a French immersion program. The grant also provides for improved science, math, technology and arts programs within schools.
Both proposals also recommend converting some schools into "neighborhood theme schools," which would offer one specialized subject, from math to music, that would be chosen by parents and school officials.
Edythe Flemings Hall, president of the county's NAACP chapter, said the proposal did not provide enough information to analyze alternatives. Also, the NAACP's input was not sought before the county school system drafted its written application for the $4 million grant, she said.
"We have not been provided with before and after racial and enrollment information on the operation of either plan [nor] with the associated costs for either plan," she said.
She is also worried the theme schools would detract "from the overall desegregation that can be accomplished with magnet schools."
Parent activist Donna Beck is also wary of neighborhood theme schools. "They are about the administration letting schools decide a program theme. And in some cases you will have movers and shakers in a community who will do that, whereas in other areas parents may need more guidance," she said.
She believes the county should build more neighborhood schools rather than simply offer academic themes in existing schools.
Mrs. Beck doubts that transforming four county schools into magnet schools will be easy to do. "I can't see us giving up four schools when we have overcrowding and still have children who can't go to neighborhood schools," Mrs. Beck said.
Those who have been keeping an eye on the proposal agree that parents and community leaders whose schools are chosen for conversion to magnet schools are not likely to simply hand over their schools without an argument.
Last year, Mrs. Metts discarded a plan to convert Indian Queen Elementary School in Fort Washington to a Montessori magnet school after severe opposition from parents, who thought the conversion would disrupt the neighborhood school.
Other parents, however, believe magnets are important to the community because children benefit from the specialized programs they offer. "Maintaining magnets is critical to the future of our public school system," said Joan Roache, a parent activist. "We can't be successful with a one-size-fits-all approach."
The county may not make up its mind on the issue any time soon because of all the wrangling, which reaches all the way to the superintendent's office.
The school board, for example, wanted public hearings held before it voted on the magnet proposal. Hearing were scheduled for July, but were canceled abruptly by Mrs. Metts and never rescheduled.
Board members also want to meet with the county's Committee of 100, the NAACP and other specialists from around the county to hear their views.
"I would like to see bright children in Bowie attend school in Bowie," said District 5 member Robert Callahan.
He said magnet school students who live in his district were not performing better on tests than other schools.
"There is an image that a magnet school is equal to an excellent school. There is no need to create this artificial expectation in Bowie which already has high-performing schools," he said.

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