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Phila. Stakes Hopes On Voluntary Plan For Desegregation

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Philadelphia--Hundreds of minority parents have flocked to specially created community-outreach centers here in recent weeks seeking to have their children bused to predominantly white schools, as the Philadelphia School District began implementing its new voluntary-desegregation program.

Constance E. Clayton, superintendent of schools, ruled out mandatory busing in selling the program to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court and the state Human Relations Commission last October--the first time a superintendent had explicitly ruled out mandatory busing in the city's 15-year struggle to desegregate its schools.

Letters to Parents

And Philadelphia school officials, in promoting the voluntary program, have recorded a number of other firsts this year, including a direct mailing on desegregation to 56,800 elementary-school parents early in February and the establishment of the community-outreach centers for counseling parents on desegregation-related matters.

The centers, opened at 10 locations across the city on two recent Saturdays, drew large numbers of minority parents interested in having their children bused on a voluntary basis from primarily black sections in north, west, and northwest Philadelphia to schools in the primarily white northeast section of the city.

All told, the parents filed 1,026 transfer applications in two days at the centers--about half the number needed to desegregate an initial group of 30 schools targeted for desegregation under the program.

Opinion Survey

The strategy of communicating directly with parents about desegregation was developed after the district commissioned a public-opinion survey last year on parental attitudes toward desegregation and discovered that half of the parents interviewed had never even heard of its existing desegregation program.

"I don't believe we've ever tried an outreach process with our parents, on desegregation or any other issue, and I think parents were excited about that," Ms. Clayton said after visiting the centers.

"Parents were thinking of desegregation in a positive way," she said. "They said they wanted their children to have the opportunity to go to school with children of other races. I think because of the current image of the school district, people are giv-ing us an opportunity to perform. They are saying they are willing to participate in a program that is sound and workable."

Under the program, the district has committed itself to desegregating 30 schools by the 1985-86 school year, 6 more by 1986-87, and 11 more by 1988-89, primarily through voluntary student transfers.

Currently, only 57 of about 260 schools in the nation's fifth-largest school system are desegregated--meaning that they have white enrollments of at least 25 percent and minority enrollments of no more than 60 percent. Two-thirds of all black students in the system attend schools that are more than 90-percent black.

The district's enrollment of 202,469 students is 63.4 percent black, 25.8 percent white, 8.4 percent Hispanic, and 2.3 percent Asian. For purposes of desegregation, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are considered minority students.

New Ground

In addition to ruling out mandatory busing on the premise that it would drive white students out of the public schools, Ms. Clayton's desegregation plan also broke new ground in assessing the extent to which voluntary desegregation could succeed.

First, the plan said it was unrealistic to expect whites to voluntarily transfer to predominantly black schools. Thus, the plan is largely dependent upon the willingness of minority students to transfer to predominantly white schools. Of the 47 schools targeted for desegregation, 36 are predominantly white.

Second, the plan said voluntary desegregation at predominantly black schools would be realistic only where those schools were located in predominantly white or integrated neighborhoods.

In those cases, according to the plan, desegregation would be a matter of trying to recruit neighborhood white students back to the local public schools--not recruiting transfers from other parts of the city.

Virtually all of the 1,026 transfer requests filed by parents at the outreach centers--and most of another 1,200 transfer requests submitted since Nov. 1--have come from minority parents interested in having their children attend predominantly white schools.

But school officials say that the centers were never intended to attract white parents. A much different "marketing strategy," they say, is being developed for 11 predominantly black schools targeted for desegregation.

Since all those schools are in predominantly white or integrated neighborhoods, the officials said, desegregation is a matter of convincing neighborhoods' white residents that the schools are safe and educationally sound through media campaigns, open houses at the schools, and recruiting meetings at parents' homes.

In those areas, the most successful recruiting techniques appear to be those aimed at attracting white students entering kindergarten. Officials say it is much easier to recruit children who are just starting school than it is to try to lure whites away from private and parochial schools.

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