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Cheering city schools

We repeat: ''Yea, Central High!''

Three months ago our headline used the name Central High to typify city schools that are better than most Americans think. Now a specific Central High -- one primarily serving black students from low-income families -- receives a Ford Foundation award.

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Some outsiders still think of this Detroit school as a rowdy, threatening place. But such a description has been ''dead wrong'' for several years, according to Ford evaluators. Indeed, this is one of 110 schools in 36 cities that have shown such marked improvement in morale and performance as to become the first recipients in the foundation's City High School Recognition program. In the midst of publicized turbulence and inadequacy in urban education they were found to exemplify the birth of a new spirit in city high schools all over the country.

Yes, the evaluators sometimes came upon the other side of the improvement coin: what some might consider an excessive preoccupation with discipline; a tendency to stress particular job credentials more than broad basic education. It would be short-sighted for city schools or any others to go so far in such directions as to limit the freedom of thought and the general knowledge required to meet a time of rapid change.

But the experience of Detroit's Central High appears to have been liberating as well as calming. Its improvements in French, mathematics, and natural science have been accompanied by prizes in writing, oratory, marching band, and athletics. There is a feeling of ''family.'' There is a readiness of faculty to work during the summer to help incoming freshmen prepare themselves.

A common denominator here and in other honored schools is effective leadership, with a fair and firm principal often found to be the key. But each school has its own pluses:

* A GUT (Get Us Together) club for eating in the cafeteria and joining in after-class projects. Oliver High School, Pittsburgh.

* A tutoring program in which help can be sought from other students or anyone else in solving daily math problems, with the answers explained at the end of the day over the intercom. Rule High School, Knoxville.

* Advanced classes to encourage proficient students not to transfer to higher-rated schools. Fremont High School, Oakland.

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* An added counselor to work with an increasing Southeast Asian population. Albuquerque High School, New Mexico.

These are the merest sample of what is going on. By noting them, the foundation lets schools know somebody cares. The awards announced this week are of $1,000 each for use by student bodies. The schools may submit proposals for further awards of $20,000.

Not exactly easy street for anybody. But the program had barely started when inquiries came from state and local groups nudged toward recognizing their own. One thing can lead to another. Awards give the media something to report besides the problems still clamoring for solution. The solutions can come closer for all as Americans realize how they have been found by some.

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