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bus ride across cultural lines

It's a little before 6:30 a.m. and Merlene Mazard, 17, is making sure she has her daily planner and her notebooks for school in hand. Her little sister, Nidta, is still in the back of the family's apartment searching for a purse.

Merlene yells for Nidta to hurry up. School bus No. 643 _ which will take the girls from their Condon Gardens home to East Lake High School _ will arrive at the corner of Drew Street and Bayside Drive in about 10 minutes.

But this is more than a bus ride. It is part of a 20-year system designed to dismantle segregation. And for these young women, it is a drastic cultural change.

While affluent, predominately white East Lake is less than half an hour away by school bus, it seems a world away from the public housing of Condon Gardens.

When Merlene and Nidta arrive, they will join only 102 other black students in a school of 2,145. Many of their classmates live in upscale subdivisions such as Lansbrook, where it's tough to find a house that costs less than $150,000.

Nidta admits she hasn't made as many friends at school as she would like. She says it can be uncomfortable being the only black student in several classes.

But Nidta, a 14-year-old freshman, says she doesn't want to attend any other school.

"It's worth it," says Nidta, a petite girl with braids. "East Lake is one of the best schools in the county. I'm just going there to get an education."

For weeks, parents and educators have debated a proposal that would change Pinellas county's school desegregation plan. Superintendent Howard Hinesley has recommended that the 30 percent maximum on black students be raised to 40 percent in schools south of Ulmerton Road and decreased to 25 percent in north county schools.

The 4 percent black-student minimum would be eliminated at elementary schools in north Pinellas county.

Critics of the plan say it will be a throwback to segregation. Supporters of it say it will be a logical step toward neighborhood schools.

Some students who are bused to East Lake High School are torn. On one hand, they say they like the school, especially the academics. Most have attended East Lake since their freshman year and look forward to graduating with their class.

But they say they have their share of discomfort. Merlene says being in the extreme minority for the first time made her somewhat shy.

"Last year and my freshman year, I was one of the only black people in my classes," says Merlene, an engaging junior. "I don't keep to myself. I talk to everybody. But for a while, though, I didn't."