Published Online: June 4, 1997

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Hernando Brown remembers an Overtown different from the rundown community near Miami that gained notoriety for its riots in 1980, 1982, and 1989 following the deaths of black men at the hands of police.

Mr. Brown remembers a dignified Overtown where people left their doors unlocked, neighbors minded each other's children, and Booker T. Washington High School was a school to be proud of.

Back in 1925, it was South Florida's first black high school. Children came from hundreds of miles--barred from segregated schools in their own neighborhoods--to learn there. The school lacked a gym and used hand-me-down books, but dedicated teachers demanded excellence, Mr. Brown recalls.

"It was like a family, where everybody knew everybody," said Mr. Brown, who graduated in 1948 and met his wife of 47 years in the school band. "You could go to a teacher's house after school if you were having trouble."

But Booker T., along with four other black high schools in Florida's Dade County, was turned into a middle school in the late 1960s during the nationwide movement toward desegregation. To appease the resentful community, the school board vowed to revive the high school if enough students moved into the neighborhood. A new middle school was built across the street in 1990, and the old Booker T. was torn down.

For years, an alumni association that included a former state legislator, city commissioner, and county judge lobbied the school board to bring back the high school. And at a meeting last month attended by dozens of alumni, the board voted unanimously to make good on the decades-old promise.

"I think it will bring back pride to the community," Mr. Brown said.

But some Overtown residents--now a mix of blacks and Hispanics--and one school board member have raised questions about the plan's price tag and impact on integration.

The district aims to sort out cost estimates, racial proportions, attendance figures, and pupil assignments by the fall of 1998, said Carol Cortes, a deputy superintendent for the Dade County schools.

Until a new middle school could be built, about 1,400 students would have to attend portable classrooms about two miles away. Moving the portables, converting the middle school into a high school, and building another middle school could cost at least $28 million.

"There will have to be compromises," Ms. Cortes said. "But in the long run, we will bring back a great high school."

--BETH REINHARD brein@epe.org

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