Published Online: December 14, 1994

Effort To Do the Right Thing Upsets Ga. County

Morgan, Ga.

After Corkin Cherubini was elected the superintendent of schools in Calhoun County, Ga., two years ago, he set out to dismantle a series of district practices that he says amount to "education apartheid."

They include a longstanding practice of grouping kindergartners in a way that maintains some white-majority classrooms in the black-majority district, tracking by ability beginning in the 3rd grade, and segregating cheerleading squads.

Mr. Cherubini, who taught high school English in the 1,200-student district for 22 years, says he is doing the right thing. And federal civil-rights officials whom he invited to visit the district say that some of the practices he is ending are not only unfair, but also illegal.

But reactions to his reforms have reached emotional extremes in this rural farming area, where white residents particularly resent his invitation to the civil-rights investigators and the media attention that followed them to Calhoun County.

"I don't think anyone is more disliked here than Dr. Cherubini," said Richard West, a white businessman and a former member of the local school board. "At the rate we're going, we'll be back to the 60's with whites in private schools."

A current school board member, Julian Holder, who is black, countered: "Something had to be done, and [Mr. Cherubini] took action." Mr. Holder said the tracking system consigned black students to less challenging classes and low expectations.

Black and white residents do agree on one thing: The recent developments have strained relations between the groups, which had been largely genteel but distant.

Mr. Cherubini's enemies have made threatening phone calls to his home and office, and tried unsuccessfully to recall him.

In September, upon learning that "white clustering" of kindergarten students had ended, some white parents began sending their young children to nearby private schools. Since this fall, 39 students, almost all of them white, have left the school system.

Anonymous fliers with racially antagonistic messages and a fabricated riot scare that brought more than 100 parents racing to Calhoun County High School prompted still-unresolved police investigations.

And the turmoil has seeped into the hallways of Calhoun High.

"I hear Dr. Cherubini is trying to cater to blacks, but that's the American way. You know who's on your side," said Rodney Kendrick, 17, who is black and the president of the county National Association for the Advancement of Colored People youth chapter.

But Mr. Kendrick, a senior, said he is not totally opposed to ability grouping, as it can provide greater challenges for students who work hard. Other blacks say it is hard to get out of low-level groups once they are tracked.

White students feel somewhat besieged. "It's hard to laugh around here," said Preston Rish, a white senior. "It looks like whites are against blacks and catered to, and blacks are helpless and Dr. Cherubini is going to save them."

"It has been a tough fall," Mr. Cherubini said in a recent interview, shaking his head at the understatement.

Still, he pledges not to abandon what he has started. He feels vindicated by initial reports from federal officials, who said the school system, if formally reviewed, would be cited for civil-rights violations.

The Calhoun County district "appeared to be far away" from showing that its system of grouping could be justified as an effort to improve opportunity and achievement, said Barbara Shannon, the chief attorney in the Atlanta regional office of the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights.

Racial 'Comfort'

Calhoun County is in the heart of southwest Georgia's peanut and cotton country, where fields border glimmering ponds and stands of oak, cypress, and pine trees. It is the kind of place where a longtime resident like Mr. Cherubini, who did not grow up in the South, still hears himself called an outsider because he does not socialize more with locals.

Of the county's roughly 5,000 residents, about 60 percent are black and 40 percent are white. Most people live in the towns of Edison, Morgan, Arlington, and Leary.

In a region of the country often linked to racial strife, many white Calhoun County residents say there are no racial problems here. That widespread perception is why many locals say they were surprised by the intense feelings that emerged on both sides of the school issue.

Like many Southern districts, Calhoun County was faced with integrating separate, segregated school systems after the U.S. Supreme Court declared such systems unconstitutional in 1954. Integration came to this district in 1970, but white students in kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade have been "clustered" to maintain white-majority classrooms, even though blacks make up about 75 percent of the system's students.

In the 1993-94 school year, for example, there were two all-black classes with 26 students each and two classes with whites outnumbering blacks by 14 to 11 and 12 to 8.

Andy Sanders, the principal of Calhoun County Elementary School, said clustering eased youngsters' transition to school by keeping friends together. He said parents from both races felt "more comfortable" with such grouping.

Grouping by skills level, or tracking, begins in 3rd grade, based on students' reading ability. Using teacher recommendations and test scores, students are put in one of four ability groups for grades 3-8, even though students move to the high school building when they reach 6th grade.

Mr. Sanders said students are routinely evaluated and move up or down depending on their performance. "I thought we had good flow between our groups," he said. "I didn't see any need to make changes, or I would have."

Willie Frost, a member of the county school board who is black, disagreed. "Once they start in these groups, they stick together all the way," he said.

Students choose a college-preparatory or vocational track beginning in 9th grade. This year, 15 blacks and 16 whites are expected to graduate from the college-bound group, while 17 blacks and seven whites will earn the vocational diploma.

Civil-Rights Violations

Ms. Shannon of the O.C.R. and a desegregation expert who is helping draft new policies for the district agreed that these practices do not pass legal muster. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars racial discrimination in federally financed education programs, prohibits tracking under some circumstances.

"The only time O.C.R. can deal with it is if grouping results in racially identifiable classes, and in this case, it did," said Nancy Peck, an official with the the Miami Equity Center. It is a branch of the Southeastern Desegregation Center, a federally financed center that provides technical assistance to districts.

Ms. Peck added that Calhoun County is far from alone in its grouping practices. She suggested that media attention to this case could help make race-based grouping the "civil-rights issue of the 90's."

Ms. Peck will help Calhoun County develop a plan for change. Alternatives to tracking include randomly picked mixed-race classes, ability grouping for specific subjects, and team teaching.

Ms. Shannon explained: "We want to give them the opportunity to change in a way consistent with what they want. This way they can decide."

She said there has been little public resistance to Ms. Peck's suggestions. But their Nov. 14 presentation to the county school board attracted a record crowd, and the uproar that preceded it suggests the issue is likely to remain controversial.

'White Flight' Feared

Many whites, as well as some blacks, are wary of outside intervention and still resent Mr. Cherubini's invitation to the federal officials.

"Is it like we're hiding something?" asked Chuck Cowart, a banker who is the chairman of the school board. "O.C.R. has known what we're doing for 25 years."

Some critics also say that the uproar could have been minimized if Mr. Cherubini had communicated more effectively with parents and implemented changes more gradually.

Mr. Cowart worries about further "white flight" and freely suggests that Mr. Cherubini lacks the leadership and public-relations skills to guide the county through the changes that must be made.

"If Dr. Cherubini had gone to the board and said he had a problem with tracking and equity, these people would have found some way to disagree with him," countered James Gibson, the vice president of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter.

The district's demographics may prevent his critics from altering either Mr. Cherubini's desegregation policies or his job prospects. Blacks hold a 4-to-3 majority on the school board, which will name the superintendent beginning next year, when all districts in Georgia will have appointed, rather than elected, superintendents.

While blacks may have been quiet about the district's grouping practices, that does not mean they were unconcerned, Mr. Frost, the board member, said. He said Mr. Cherubini has been a catalyst for activism in the black community.

Change Comes Slowly

While heterogeneous kindergarten classes are the most dramatic result of Mr. Cherubini's campaign, other changes are already occurring in the district.

This winter, two white girls will participate on the basketball cheerleading squad, which has been all black for as long as anyone can remember. And the football cheerleading squad, which has been all white for several years, may be merged with the basketball squad next year.

Mr. Cowart said football cheerleaders are chosen by a panel that includes both black and white judges. Few black girls try out for the squad, he said, and they simply fail to impress the judges.

"I want to know what's the difference between an all-black basketball team picked with tryouts and the cheerleaders," he said.

Ms. Shannon said officials would have to conduct interviews to determine if the school has precluded integrated squads by "pattern and practice."

A practice that may be even less amenable to change is that of holding separate senior proms for black and white students. This is not an official policy. White students simply do not attend the school-sponsored prom, and instead organize a separate party privately.

"I want to hear black music, not country," quipped Rodney Kendrick, the black senior at Calhoun High, who wants to be a journalist.

His white friend, Preston Rish, who wants to study agriculture, agreed that differing cultural tastes are the root of the tradition. He said it makes him mad that adults think "whites don't want a formal with blacks."

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