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Shifting Scenes in Black and White

Forty years after Little Rock, segregation endures in US classrooms - in new forms.

At Little Rock Central High School history gets up from the pages of textbooks and walks the brick building's trophy-laden halls.

Forty years ago, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called out the National Guard rather than obey a federal court order to integrate the school. Images of that standoff - of frightened young blacks trying to enter the school, of white faces twisted with hate - remain object lessons in the difficulties of America's long struggle with civil rights.

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Today Central High seems a symbol of education, not racial ignorance. The mood is relaxed as blacks, whites, Asians, and Hispanics mingle on school grounds.

Symbolizing this progress, on Thursday, President Clinton will hold open the front door for the "Little Rock nine," the students who braved taunts, rocks, and worse to break the school's color line decades ago.

Progress, however, does not equal nirvana. Educators, students, and those who have followed desegregation in the city are gratified to see the images of Little Rock as a hotbed of segregation fading away. But they agree that the question of whether the area's desegregation moves are a model or a failed attempt at court-ordered racial balancing remains to be answered.

It's a question that has important implications nationwide. Thirty years after the great victories of the civil rights movement, there are indications that US schools are becoming more segregated - and that simply housing students of different races in the same school may not equal true social melding. "Desegregation has two components," says Gary Orfield of Harvard University's School of Education. "The first is getting people inside the door. The second is integrating individual classes, social events, the curriculum."

Central High, for its part, is perhaps the crown jewel of the Little Rock public-education system. Many of the city's most prominent citizens - such as Gov. Mike Huckabee and White House counselor Thomas McLarty III - send their children there.

With an overall black enrollment of 61 percent, the school produces more than half of the state's black National Merit semifinalists. Of those, many have been accepted by selective admission schools, such as Harvard, Columbia, and Yale.

But critics of the current desegregation plan, such as Little Rock civil rights attorney John Walker, point to class makeup as evidence of continued segregation. Whites make up the majority of Central's honors classes, while regular classes are heavily black.

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This separation is not the result of a systemic effort to keep races separate inside school walls, says Ann Brown, federal monitor for the US District Court's Office of Desegregation Monitoring, which oversees the Little Rock desegregation plan. Instead, she claims that it is the result of socio-economic factors. "Black children tend to be poorer," says Ms. Brown. "Poor children come from families where the parents often don't have proper prenatal care and may not be educated themselves to the value of these classes."

Students at Central are quick to dispel assertions that segregation prevails, saying that recent news articles showing blacks and whites in separate groups at lunch and break periods are inaccurate and not indicative of racism. "I may have lunch with friends who are white, but I'm on the football team with all kinds of kids who are my best friends," says senior Zach Steadman.

Brian Abson and Ashley Earlywine, also seniors, say issues about class makeup are moot. "There are more whites in [advanced placement] classes, but it's not racial. It's all about what you want to do with your life," says Brian. Still, all agree that poor children and children from single-parent homes are less likely to be motivated. "I'm fortunate because both of my parents are teachers. I have the support at home," Ashley says.

Central High is far from alone in having a preponderance of white students in advanced classrooms. In Louisville, Ky., blacks make up only 10 percent of the honors students but account for 30 percent of total enrollment. In South Carolina the split is even more pronounced: 13 percent of state honor-class students are black, while overall enrollment is 43 percent black.

Such disparities have helped fuel the so-called "neo-separatist" movement, in which some minority leaders are calling for a focus on improving their neighborhood schools, as opposed to busing and integration.

"If you're not going to have truly integrated classes with equal opportunity, many parents question whether the sacrifice [of busing their children] is worthwhile," says Edgar Epps, a professor of urban education at the University of Chicago.

Meanwhile, after declining from the late 1960s until 1980, overall racial segregation of schools is again increasing. According to a recent study by the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, 67 percent of black students nationwide attend predominantly minority schools - up from 62.9 percent 17 years ago. A major cause: continued American housing segregation.

It's a trend reflected in Little Rock. During the past decade, the percentage of minority students in the city's schools has climbed slowly, to 67 percent. Today it continues to go up, as white families relocate to the suburbs.

So pronounced was the problem of white flight that US district Judge Henry Woods, who oversaw a court-ordered desegregation effort in the early 1980s, devised a plan to consolidate the three school districts in Pulaski County. After his plan was consistently reversed by the US Court of Appeals, he relinquished the case. Judge Susan Webber Wright, who now oversees desegregation, will be asked within the next week to consider a newly revised desegregation plan passed by the Little Rock School Board Sept. 18.

For some of the original nine, time has brought perspective. "The experience made me open to white people," says Thelma Mothershed Wair, a retired teacher. "I taught white children. I was able to treat them fairly."

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