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N.C. District's Remedy for White 'Isolation' Draws Protest

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In a highly unusual move, school administrators in Greensboro, N.C., have grouped white students together in several predominantly black elementary schools to prevent them from being "isolated" in nearly all-black classes.

In doing so, the district has created a number of all-black classes in the schools, raising protests in the city's black community and from at least one white parent.

School officials say the move is a "stopgap" attempt to stem the steady exodus of white students from predominantly black inner-city schools. But that explanation has not satisfied the local chapter of the naacp, which may file a lawsuit to strike down the practice.

"The position that the branch has taken is that you can't have a policy that focuses on the segregation of classes," said Edwin D. Bell, chairman of the education committee of the Greeensboro naacp chapter.

Although deemed integrated in the mid-1970's after several years of court-ordered desegregation efforts, the district has continued to bus children in an effort to preserve racial integration.

But as a result, many white families who live in attendance areas served by predominantly black inner-city schools have taken their children out of the city schools. This trend, city officials say, threatens desegregration efforts.

"Our number one goal is to main4tain an integrated education system," said Sarah J. Beale, president of the Greensboro City Board of Education. "It is difficult because not all citizens share that goal, and there is a fear that isolation will drive more whites" out.

In an effort to curb "white flight," principals at several elementary schools have sought and been given permission by Superintendent of Schools John A. Eberhart to create a number of all-black classes.

At Jones Elementary School, where the student population is 70 percent black, the principal established eight all-black classes. The remaining seven classes were to have had an equal number of white and black students.

But last-minute enrollments by a number of white students, Mr. Eberhart said last week, resulted in white majorities in those classes.

At Wiley Elementary School, where the student population is 83 percent black, there are seven all black classes; the rest are predominantly black.

The principals at both schools are black.

Washington Elementary School, which initiated the move to all-black classes last year, became a magnet school this year and was able to draw enough white students to integrate all classes.

Jones and Wiley also have become magnet schools, and district officials hope they, too, will eventually attract more white students.

"Our action was aimed at main8taining the enrollments of a few white students as we move to a magnet-school program which we hope will draw white students from all over the district," Mr. Eberhart said.

'Let's Try This'

"We are experiencing a rapid drop in white enrollment in the schools of central Greensboro and that has got to stop," Mr. Eberhart said. "As a temporary stopgap measure I said, 'Let's try this and see what happens."'

William L. Taylor, a lawyer who is a national expert on desegregation, said classes in integrated schools around the country sometimes become racially segregated through the practice of grouping students according to ability.

But "the notion of resegregating children within a desegregated school in order to maintain stability and avoid white flight is something that is unusual," he said.

"I haven't heard of it before," Mr. Taylor said, adding that he believed the policy "would not survive a legal challenge."

In Greensboro, the public learned of the practice after a parent of a white student at Jones asked the school's principal why her son, who has a learning handicap, was not placed in the class of a black second-grade teacher who had helped him in the past.

"I was told that the teacher I had requested was going to teach an all- black class," said Kathleen Williams. "The principal said that since my son was white he couldn't be in this teacher's classroom unless he was willing to be the only white."

Disgruntled, Ms. Williams wrote an angry letter to Mr. Eberhart, saying: "My child is on a bus for 45 minutes to go to his school to help desegregate it. What is the point of desegregation if the classrooms are going to be segregated anyway?"

Ms. Williams said last week that when she did not hear from Mr. Eberhart, she decided to go to the local newspaper, The Greensboro News & Record, which, on Oct. 5, ran a front-page story on the room-assignment practice.

Mr. Eberhart tells a different story: "The newspaper had her complaints before I got her letter."

Local naacp officials plan to meet with Mr. Eberhart and with representatives from their national parent organization before deciding whether to pursue legal action against the district, according to Mr. Bell. He said the organization was particularly troubled by the predominantly white classes at Jones.

Mr. Eberhart said last week that he would take immediate steps to eliminate any "majority-white classes" in predominantly black schools. But he said he might continue to allow "one-race classes" to prevent racial isolation for students attending schools where there is currently a racial imbalance.

"At this point," he said, "I haven't been persuaded that this is not a positive and constructive action to promote and advance school and classroom integration."

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