IT'S back-to-school night at Thomas Pullen Elementary, and the three-acre parking lot is packed. Something different is happening here. Thomas Pullen is a newly formed ``school of choice'' - one of 41 special focus ``magnet'' schools (Pullen specializes in teaching the arts) that, in less than three years, have changed the face of public education in Maryland's 570-square-mile Prince George's County, a 60 percent minority population suburb of Washington, and the 14th-largest school system in the nation.
Many parents waited in line three days to enroll their children in Pullen. One father following his son from a drama class to a class on the Suzuki method of teaching violin said, ``Can you believe the turnout here tonight]''
Yet just a few years ago, ``PG'' schools had hit an all-time low. Morale was poor, public confidence lacking. More parents were ``going private.'' Between 1977 and 1982, 65 schools closed because of declining school population; 500 teachers were cut one year. A property tax ceiling kept money tight.
Then, in 1984, and in lieu of an $80 million court-ordered desegregation plan, the Prince George District formed 12 magnet schools. High-caliber programs focusing on science and math, or around educational philosophies such as Montessori, were placed in all-black neighborhoods.
The response was overwhelming - from white as well as black parents. The following year, 17 new magnets were added to meet demands. This fall 13 more opened - bringing the total to 41 in a system of 174 schools. (Many became ``reverse magnets'' - where blacks are bused to white neighborhoods.) And still there were only 2,000 places for 5,000 applicants.
PG is not just another large district with a few special magnet schools serving the talented or disadvantaged - but a system of choice among quality schools for all. It's a new evolution of the ``magnet'' idea, educators say.
Further, schools of choice have brought a ``dynamic of change,'' a healthy spirit of experimentation, to the entire PG system, says Dennis Doyle of the Hudson Institute. Magnet principals were given the power to hire their own teachers, and, working with teachers, to redesign classes and curriculum (see story next page). Teachers - for the first time - may now switch schools (one reason for the support of the local teacher union). Voters agreed to raise property taxes, giving schools more funding.
Meanwhile, non-magnet schools in PG are working harder to stay competitive with the magnets, sometimes borrowing their methods and strategies. As a result, spirits - and test scores - have soared throughout the district. From 1982 to 1986, third-grade averages on the California Achievement Test jumped from the 50th percentile to the 65th percentile; and from the 53rd to the 64th for eighth-graders.
Perhaps the most visible evidence of turnaround in PG is the number of children switching from private to public schools, some 4,000 having returned since 1984. Tom and Linda Wolfe moved their two boys from a private Montessori school to Pullen, a 12-mile bus ride, this year. Linda remembers PG public schools in which ``only four parents showed up for a PTA meeting, and no one would serve.'' At Pullen, however, about 75 parents are already signed up.
The ``dynamic'' of choice schools in PG also fulfills desegregation goals - the schools main tain strict racial quotas: no more than 80 percent and no less than 10 percent white or black. (In fact, most schools mix better.) But race is not the prime issue for parents - quality is. ``What we've learned in the last two years is that humans are more caring than we believed - they'll bus - if the educational choices are strong enough,'' says PG spokesman Brian Porter.
``I thought at first these schools were a gimmick,'' says Pullen parent Joe Rosenfeld, ``a way to get parents to switch from saying, `Please don't bus my child' to ``Please bus my child.' But the more I looked at the schools, the more impressed I was: The teachers want to be here, the parents want to be here. There's commitment on all sides.''
PG's superintendent, John Murphy, is the driving force behind schools of choice. He says he wants to put his district in the top academic quartile (25 percent) in the country by 1990. ``We want to prove that black children can compete - and that's going to take more than just a few school reforms, it's going to take a systemwide revolution. Schools of choice are the process by which this can happen.''
The Prince George choice story really goes back to 1971 and federal district judge Frank Kaufman, who ruled in favor of an NAACP suit demanding that PG schools be racially balanced. Mass busing established a 50-50 balance - soon to change by an equally massive ``white flight'' and internal migration. By 1981, the schools were back to 90 to 95 percent white or black.
In 1982, Judge Kaufman again stepped in. This time he ruled in favor of an elaborate (all 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-graders to be bused) and expensive (80 million) special desegregation commission plan. But Dr. Murphy stepped in and offered the magnet-choice plan to the NAACP, which accepted it, provided the system also funded 10 ``Milliken'' schools in PG - nonintegrated black schools with enhanced resources and facilities. Murphy agreed.
What Murphy got was desegregation, happier workers and parents, and better schools. This year, for the first time in 15 years, PG's enrollment hasn't dropped. Total cost: $20 million.
Educators like Chester Finn, assistant secretary of education, and groups like the National Governors' Association Educational Task Force, see magnets as a pragmatic political method of creating school systems of choice. Voucher plans are a hard sell. But parental demand provides the necessary impetus for creating new and different magnets, they say. (There are 12 magnet types in PG, including French Immersion, traditional schools, classics-based, and humanities.)
By the same token, PG magnets must... draw. If parents don't demand a particular school, ``that school closes,'' says Mr. Porter, who adds: ``There's a political reality, a continuum, from no choice, to choice, in a school district. There are a lot of well-meaning but esoteric methods out there of getting choice to work out. But you can't just suddenly create it. It has to evolve.''
Contrariwise, to just pour money into a few special magnet schools ``causes bitter infighting in the district,'' says Murphy.
Thus far, 39 of the 41 PG magnets are elementary and middle schools. But PG officials are already thinking about high school choice for these students.
Science-math magnet school sets high goals College Park, Md.
Magnet schools, by definition, challenge the status quo. As the new principal of Paint Branch Elementary, which opened this fall as a science and math magnet, Linda Dudley has done just that. She hired an entire staff of 20 teachers (from 80 applicants) in June. In July she had them all over for a three-day ``slumber party'' to work out the philosophy and goals of the new school - an experience most professional teachers dream about.
Together, Ms. Dudley and her staff decided to teach math and science an hour a day and to work science concepts into a special daily language and social studies class. (Typical classes are 45 minutes; science is usually taught only three of every nine weeks.)
The goal - using new problem-solving skills, computers, and early introduction to advanced mathematical concepts such as variables and unknowns - is to enable these children (half white, half black) to take calculus by Grade 10. At least 95 percent must be ready for pre-algebra by seventh grade; 45 percent for algebra. (Algebra is generally taught in Grade 9.)
Science stresses ``hands on.'' A strong link is developed between intellect and application. The scientific method - developing a hypothesis, finding materials and procedures, coming up with results, and finally reflecting and analyzing - is explained in conjunction with experiments. (Most elementary children don't do lab work.)
The ethic of the new program is evident in Mrs. Beard's second-grade classroom, where, on the way to a mechanical explanation of the way trains work, she asks a group of 10 children to ``put the different cars in their proper order - and I want you to do your own thinking!''