Still, parents say that their children are thriving at Roland Park, and what has made them more comfortable with the school is its willingness to tackle race and cultural issues head-on.

"I think the adults are aware that we could be doing certain things better," said Arnetta M.R. Young, the mother of an African-American sixth-grader who transferred from a private school. "Race is not easy to talk about … but if we have those hard conversations, there's room for tremendous growth."

Roland Park also promotes its diversity. For example, it encourages staff and parents to undergo cultural proficiency training and asks job candidates about ways they've dealt with different kinds of cultures and students. In addition, the school confronted themes of race and discrimination when it put on a production this spring of the musical "Hairspray."

Nicholas Prosper, an eighth-grader, said that when he recited the line, "Not bad for a white girl" about the main character's dance moves, he learned about reverse racism.

"I used to think it was just whites who would be discriminative toward blacks," Nicholas said.

The lack of diversity can be an issue at schools with a mostly white student body, like Hereford High in the northern part of the county. Like some students at Milford Mill, Nick Burton-Prateley, a 16-year-old Hereford sophomore, understands that his education is lacking something. Interacting with other races "is a skill of sorts you don't get when you go to a school like Hereford."

Sometimes he notices the lack of diversity. "It is a wake-up call to see that there is still this segregation in schools. You are taught that it doesn't exist anymore, but then you walk down the hall."

Andrew Last, Hereford's principal, believes the 92 percent white student body is a function of the socioeconomics of the school's boundaries, which covers large stretches of rural area and reaches to Pennsylvania.

"I love a mix," said Last, a native of Britain. "America is a mixed culture, and that's healthy. I always like different people in the building who offer viewpoints."

He tries to find other opportunities for diversity, such as hosting foreign exchange students and hiring staff of color.

The widespread segregation that exists in Baltimore City and Prince George's County — and in pockets of Baltimore County — is unlikely to change.

"Baltimore City has limited choices in what it can do to mix students by race and income," Baum said. "It doesn't have control over family choices about where to live."

Baltimore County does use magnet schools as a way to give students choices for middle and high schools. And each year thousands of students leave their neighborhoods to attend a magnet program or school. Dance would also like to see students from mostly white Sparrows Point High and mostly black Woodlawn High get together more often for athletic events, chess tournaments and other extracurricular activities.

In 1996, Connecticut's highest court ordered the legislature to find a way to integrate Hartford's schools across district lines, according to an Abell Foundation report suggesting such a model could be applied to Baltimore. The result in Hartford has been the establishment of more than 30 magnet schools that attract white, black and Latino students.

But without a major push for magnet schools, little is likely to change.

That leaves one big remaining question for city kids, said Baum, the author and professor.

"Is the city going to be able to help a predominantly poor student body succeed educationally, without being able to integrate schools economically?" he said. "We hope the answer is yes, but that will remain to be seen."

Interactive designer Dana Amihere conducted data analysis for this article. Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed.

Brown v. Board of Education

Decided on May 17, 1954, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., was a combination of five lawsuits challenging segregation from South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Kansas.

The decision found that segregated schools violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment and that separate schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional.

Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP attorney who had been educated at Baltimore's all-black Frederick Douglass High School, successfully argued the case before the Supreme Court. He was later appointed a justice.

Baltimore's school board acted quickly that fall to offer choice to black and white families who wanted to move their children to other schools, while county schools remained segregated.

By 1961, Baltimore schools had changed from an overwhelmingly white enrollment to a mostly black population and still had many segregated schools.