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Sunday, December 25, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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County Rocked By Effort To End Pattern Of Segregation

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

MORGAN, Ga. - In the tranquil cotton country of Calhoun County, no one ever suspected that a wiry, gray-haired school superintendent named Corkin Cherubini would blow the whistle on de-facto segregation in his own schools.

"That's when things got nasty," he said.

Now, after one tumultuous semester that included rumors of a riot, an anonymous flier declaring "the war of the races" and a federal clampdown on Calhoun, the harmony of this rural county, population 5,000, has been lost in a wrenching soul-searching.

Cherubini, at the center of all the turmoil, had been an English teacher in Calhoun County for 22 years before he was elected superintendent in 1992. Soon after taking office, he found a glaring pattern in the paperwork crossing his desk:

Although formal segregation was long gone, most of the 1,200 pupils still follow strict tracks that lead whites to college and consign most blacks to vocational classes.

Race division starts early

The segregation starts at the beginning: Of the four kindergarten classes at Calhoun County Elementary School, Cherubini found that two were completely segregated - 26 blacks in each class, no whites. The other two kindergartens were largely white. The same pattern held true through elementary grades.

The pattern blossomed with letter-coded classes in the middle grades - "A"-track classes for top students, "D"-tracks for the slowest learners.

In the slowest, D-section of sixth-grade math: 11 blacks, no whites. In sixth-grade math, section C: 24 blacks, no whites. In the faster-track A and B sections: 26 whites, 17 blacks.

Reading, science, social studies: Same pattern.

Seventh and eighth grade: Same story.

By ninth grade, only two tracks really count: college preparatory and vocational - the college prep dominated by whites, vocational by blacks.

"Really, this is more insidious than regular segregation," Cherubini said. "Here you are tracking 75 percent of your black kids, kind of casting them into the lower echelons automatically."

Nancy Peck, associate director of the Miami-based Southeastern Desegregation Center, calls the structure of Calhoun's public schools one of the worst cases of de-facto segregation she ever has seen.

"I do understand what they are saying about ability grouping," said banker Chuck Cowart, the white chairman of the school board and a board member for 22 years. "Obviously, it's not done 100 percent by ability. If it was, all of the whites would not end up in all of the top two classes."

At the insistence of the federal Office of Civil Rights, by next fall, classes are to be reorganized in Calhoun County.

Outside classes

Still, teachers and administrators chafe at the notion that these boundaries are unbreached, and point to 10 black and white students in a high school of 600 recently reassigned to faster tracks. But the kids know the lines.

"Ever since we were young, they have had the classes that way," said Kelcey Lovett, a black 12th-grader recently advanced from the D to C track. "Some of the blacks, I feel, haven't been given a chance to show some of their skills."

At the high school in Edison, where the red paw of the Calhoun Cougars adorns the cafeteria walls, even cheerleading squads are separate. Only white girls get the few positions open each year on the 12-member football cheering squad. Only black girls have joined the basketball cheering section, which accepts all volunteers.

Faculty sponsors lament the fact that more black girls don't apply to be on the football squad - only two vied for a place this year. But kids say they know why.

"The lady, she wouldn't pick the black kids, so they wouldn't go out," said Sedrick King, 13, a black eighth-grader.

This, too, will change this winter, when the cheerleading squads will merge, also under the instructions of the Office of Civil Rights.

Other attempts ignored

The de-facto segregation wasn't a secret in this region midway between Atlanta and Tallahassee, Fla., where nearly 60 percent of the population is black. In the schools, the percentage of blacks runs closer to 70 percent.

"Everybody was aware of it," said Willie Taylor, a black member of Calhoun County's School Board for 17 years. "Occasionally, you might get them to change a black child from a lower section. The parents would just have to stay there every day until their child was moved out."

Until the election of four blacks to Calhoun's seven-member School Board in 1992 - the first black majority ever - no one believed anything could be done about Calhoun's separate classes, black members say.

Julian Holder, a recently elected board member, has been director of the NAACP in Calhoun for seven years. "This issue, we brought before the board then - the same identical issue we have now, seven years ago," he said. "They listened to us and said, `We've heard enough; let's move on.' "

Also, something unexpected happened in 1992. By a vote of 1,137 to 922, Calhoun unseated its school superintendent, Bobby Paul, inheritor of a dynasty that produced only two superintendents in 30 years.

It wasn't until this summer that Cherubini made his goals clear.

"At the end of last year, I told the elementary principal we were definitely going to clean up kindergarten," Cherubini said. "We were just going to randomly sort kids and make sure we had things better balanced."

When notices went home this fall, the phone started ringing at Cherubini's house. Anonymous calls threatening personal harm.

Cherubini called in the Office of Civil Rights, which quickly concluded that Calhoun was out of compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Towns shaken

His actions inflamed much of the white community.

"That's like calling in the IRS to do your tax returns," said Frank Miller, a banker and white member of the school board.

What really shook the little towns of Morgan, Edison and Arlington was an anonymous flier that circulated early last month: "Support Dr. C . . . 100 percent black Calhoun County schools. No white teachers! No white workers! . . .

"We have the chance to obtain what we deserve in Calhoun County!" the flier declared. "We must arm ourselves and be ready to fight for it. Whites have their own school in Damascus. We must make them go there by any means necessary! The war of the races has started!"

One Friday in November, someone anonymously called the Riverside sewing plant near the high school in Edison to report a race riot at the school. Parents left work and home to pick up their children.

There was no riot.

All depressed

The suspicion and fear spawned by the controversy has depressed the young and old alike.

"For your leader to stand up and say your school system is the pits, it just hurts so much I can't tell you," said Donna Manry, guidance counselor at Calhoun County High School and mother of three children in the schools. "It's like going through a grieving experience for something that has died."

"We have always gotten along until Dr. Cherubini started stirring up all this stuff about racism," said Joy Ragan, a white 11th grader.

"He's making the school look like it's blacks against whites, and it's just not like that," said Preston Rish, a white senior. "He has turned the place upside down. The morale around here is so low, it's pitiful."

Even now, students say, friendships across color lines will survive.

"We don't let the stuff of the world get between us," said Ben Ford, a white senior. He grasps the black hand of junior Roderick Greggs as they meet in a breezeway of Calhoun High. "It's not the stuff on the outside. It's the inside that makes the person."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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