Signing Up Suburban Tots

December 28, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- One of the biggest surprises my family encountered after we joined America's great trek to suburbia a couple of years ago was to find our son, now 4 1/2, suddenly in great demand at some local preschools.

That's not a bad thing in the modern etiquette of preschools. It is not that rare for today's status-conscious parents to begin plotting the academic career path of their children from the point of conception. Perhaps earlier.

It is no longer enough simply to ease one's offspring into the ''right'' private or magnet public school so they can be set on course to the ''right'' college and the ''right'' career. In an age that believes in cramming as much knowledge into little noggins as early as possible, the path to the ''right'' private or magnet school may be paved through the ''right'' preschool.

Unfortunately, our son's sudden popularity has less to do with his budding brilliance than with his blackness.

Part of having the etiquette that determines the ''right'' school these days is ''diversity,'' what we used to call ''integration'' in earlier decades. This is not necessarily a bad thing, except for a problem: Diversity-minded white parents often find there aren't enough middle-class black kids to go around. As a result, middle-class black families who might once have been harassed and terrorized out of white neighborhoods find themselves receiving an unexpected welcome.

One Saturday afternoon, a friendly neighbor who happened to be white dropped by our house, her toddler daughter at her side playing quietly in a stroller, to pitch to my wife and me the virtues of her local preschool.

My wife cut quickly to the bottom line: ''They don't have any blacks at that school, do they?'' she asked.

Well, no, the woman said, a bit downcast, but she and at least some of the other parents there wanted to change that situation.

She went on to explain how the school had two African-American youngsters the previous year, ''but one moved away and the family of the other decided to transfer to another school.''

As much as we appreciated her effort, her description of the school didn't strike my wife and me as a ringing endorsement, so we decided to take a pass. We, too, want an integrated upbringing for our child, but integration is not a one-way street. We expect our efforts to learn about white folks to be reciprocated at least a little.

In that spirit, some well-endowed schools and preschools offer scholarships to disadvantaged students, which helps their diversity numbers. Even so, they don't want an imbalance of rich white kids and poor black kids.

So, tot scouting is a big deal, not unlike college football recruiting. We have received similar pitches from other parents, black and white, for their preschools and even for regular private schools, even though our son won't be ready for kindergarten for yet another year.

Small wonder. The modern economics of race and poverty have produced a tremendous imbalance. Poor blacks are having more children, on average, than middle-class black families are, even though black households whose income is above the poverty line outnumber those below by 2-to-1. By 1980, for example, out-of-wedlock black births had soared to about half of all black births. By 1990, the percentage jumped to about 60 percent.

Also, residential segregation still finds most blacks and whites of all classes living quite separate lives in distantly separate neighborhoods. The result is what a recent report Harvard's Gary Orfield conducted for the National School Boards Association called ''a historic reversal'' of integration gains made in the 1960s and 1970s. Most black and Hispanic students now sit in classrooms with few or no whites, the report says, and the trend is accelerating. ''The civil-rights impulse is dead in the water,'' Mr. Orfield said. ''The ship is floating backward toward the shoals of racial segregation.''

Nationally, two-thirds of black students attended mostly minority schools in 1991-92, the highest percentage since 1968, when the figure was 76 percent, the report said.

For growing numbers of blacks as well as whites, the desire to integrate education has been displaced by the more pressing problem of improving the quality of education for all students. Some reforms, like parental involvement, are actually handicapped by reforms like busing that transports some students away from their neighborhood schools.

Integration efforts succeed best in rural areas, small towns and the suburbs of medium-sized cities, all areas with agreeable geography, racial demographics and a general sense of community cohesion across racial lines.

So, yes, I sympathize with our area tot scouts. Somebody has to break the ice. We just don't want it to be our kid.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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