School busing turns topsy-turvy In Carrollton Ridge, white parents prefer primarily black school

March 13, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Twenty-four years ago this spring, white parents and students picketed Baltimore's school board with signs that read "We're staying at our schools: No to busing."

A generation later, some of the students who were bused to desegregate schools are now parents. And they are complaining about the issue of busing their elementary schoolchildren.

But this time, it is a protest of a different sort: Some white parents in Carrollton Ridge desperately want their children to stay at the primarily black school they are being bused to, bypassing a neighborhood school.

"I don't look at the color issue. I don't look at the distance issue. I look at the education that will best prepare them for life," said mother Marjorie Moyer.

For her, that means Bentalou Elementary where her daughter went to second grade last year and not Samuel F. B. Morse Elementary, which is expected to be 57 percent white once busing stops.

Everything and nothing has changed after 24 years.

Parents, black and white, are again fighting for the bottom line -- the best education they can get for their children. Sometimes that is tinged with racial distrust and sometimes not.

In 1974, the civil rights division of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare ordered Baltimore to create a plan to integrate its schools.

Twenty-two elementary schools were integrated through the "pairing" of schools such as Bentalou and Samuel F. B. Morse, only a mile apart. In the intervening years the desegregation plan has long been forgotten as Baltimore's schools became predominantly black, the school population shrank and many of the paired schools had one school close.

Today, 17 of the system's 117 elementary schools are predominantly white.

Busing at Bentalou and Samuel F. B. Morse in Southwest Baltimore remains as the only vestige of the past.

Every school day at 7: 50 a.m. kindergarten through second-graders are bused from the neighborhood around Samuel F. B. Morse to Bentalou Elementary and back again at 2: 30 p.m.

Older students in grades three through five who live near Bentalou are bused to Samuel F. B. Morse.

Almost everyone agrees that it is hard for the smallest children to wait on the street corner outside where there is no shelter from rain or snow. And the principal at Samuel F. B. Morse says it is long past the time when children should be bused out of their neighborhood.

"I am not a particular proponent of busing to achieve integration. I believe in community schools," said Kenneth Gladden, principal at Samuel F. B. Morse. "Busing is a dinosaur. Its time has come and gone."

Gladden argues that the state holds principals and teachers accountable when their students don't meet state standards in the third grade. But because his school begins in third grade, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program holds him responsible for how well children were taught at Bentalou.

Carrollton Ridge Community Association president Constance Fowler, who represents the neighborhood around Morse, argues that money spent on busing children might more wisely be spent on textbooks or teachers.

So she and Gladden are going to the new school board this year, seeking an end to busing. An attempt last year failed, however, when parents opposed the plan.

If the plan wins approval this year, both schools would return to being neighborhood elementary schools with students from kindergarten through fifth grade.

Samuel F. B. Morse would be 57 percent white, and Bentalou would be 98 percent black.

Given Baltimore's racial problems, outsiders might assume that would make the small white population happy. But 24 years of integration has taught some families to trust that their children will learn at Bentalou. They care little about the color of the children they sit next to.

Mary Ann Winterling was Bentalou's assistant principal when busing began in 1974; she has been principal since 1980. She is now welcoming the children of the first generation who where bused there in the 1970s and prides herself on running a no-nonsense school with a family atmosphere that welcomes parental involvement.

"There is just one Mary Ann Winterling. She is a wonderful principal," said Winterling's boss, southwest area assistant superintendent Christolyne Buie.

"There are times when parents feel very strongly about a particular school," said Buie. "The environment is what makes the difference -- the atmosphere of parents feeling a sense of belonging, that they are well received and that there is a kind of nurturing they want."

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