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Little Rock Schools Match Worn Image

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More than half of the 20,000 students in the Little Rock school system are performing at or above their grade levels, school officials report.

And Central High School, the site of the famous 1957 confrontation between the Arkansas National Guard and federal troops, now is drawing white students back from private schools with its broad curricular offerings and its reputation for good race relations.

"We've pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps and addressed the problem of teaching all children," says Julia McGehee, a spokesman for the school system.

But school officials in Little Rock are looking for a way to solve what they believe is their one major problem: a shortage of white middle-class patrons.

In 10 years, the district's enrollment has gone from 65 percent white to 65 percent black--and 85 percent black in the primary grades. The main reason, Ms. McGehee says, is the normal movement of middle-class families to the suburbs.

The shift, Ms. McGehee and others insist, has not been educationally harmful, but it has helped to erode financial support of the schools. An increasingly black and low-income population simply does not have the money to invest in the schools; last March, for only the second time in the system's history, a millage referendum was defeated.

One attempt by the board to lure whites into the system was rejected this month by the federal judge overseeing the system's desegregation plan.

The board, under pressure from some white parents, had sought to group students so that whites would make up no less than 35 percent of each homeroom. The effect would have been to leave some 40 percent of the black students in grades 1-3 in all-black classes, and the judge found that resegregation unacceptable.

The board does plan, however, to open some magnet schools next fall with the hope of attracting families back to the system. And both the grade structure and the student-assignment plan will be overhauled to give schools more of a "neighborhood" character without resegregation, Ms. McGehee says.

The long-term solution, school officials believe, is to enlarge the district, either by extending its boundaries to the city limits or by seeking a merger with one of two adjacent systems that are predominantly white.

The board has agreed to look for lawyers to research the question and, if necessary, to file suit. --P.C.

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