America's city high schools have been given a reputation somewhere between ignorant anarchy and the Black Hole of Calcutta. It must change. It is changing as more Americans hear about the good schools, and more of the bad schools improve themselves. A brilliant contribution to this process is now being made by the the Ford Foundation. With a new program of widespread grants, the foundation will not only reward, say, Central High for documented improvement. It will also aid and inspire other schools by amassing and sharing information on just how Central High did it.
An underlying intention is to focus attention on the nation's ''human capital'' at a time Washington seems preoccupied with investment capital, and local school budgets are getting the ax. Certainly a corrective is needed to short-sighted fiscal zeal which forgets that the functioning of the economy as well as of democracy depends on an educated and enlightened citizenry.
Always concerned about this necessity, the Ford Foundation found a couple years ago that it had not done much with the urban high school part of the equation. Its City High School Recognition Program promises to fill the gap just when cities need it most. And in many cases these will be the urgently needy inner cities, because participation is limited to schools whose enrollment is at least 30 percent from low-income families.
One of the thoughtful aspects of the program is that the recipients of grants - from $500 to $20,000 - will not be considered ''winners.'' They will be seen as examples of or surrogates for the many other schools that could - or someday could - qualify.
Here is a challenge to state and local community organizations to launch their own programs to search out and recognize schools that have improved themselves. Indeed, the foundation has already received ripple-effect inquiries from groups that are interested in doing so.
Many localities with potential candidate schools are not on the list of 40 cities (with populations from 150,000 to 2 million) where schools are now eligible. The list ranges from Lubbock, Texas, to Worcester, Massachusetts, with the choices intended to elicit instances of improvement in diverse circumstances of population, environment, and other factors.
Parents anywhere might have suggestions. To take but one example from a city and in a trade-school category not on the list: The Samuel Gompers Vocational Technical High School was known as the most violent school in New York's South Bronx. Two years later, under new leadership, it was reported as orderly and productive, with teachers no longer fearful and enrollment up from 60 percent to 100. The principal cited such convictions as ''if you give respect you get respect.'' He countered the idea that ''the school will never be good until we get better students'' with the idea that ''these kids are as good as any, and together we can prove this.''
Ford Foundation people have already been hearing reasons for improvement elsewhere: a new building here, extra government money there; a program to involve parents for the first time; a simple change of attitude to getting tired of being ''the lousiest school in the district.'' Ways and means of progress are expected in much greater detail as the recognition program goes forward. It will provide case histories, ''micro'' studies of individual experience to go along with the forthcoming ''macro'' studies of secondary education sponsored by various national organizations.
Even exploratory investigation has begun to place the impression of demoralized and disrupted city high schools in perspective. This may be true of some of them, the foundation has found. But it also notes that many schools have made ''substanial gains'' in basic skills, with orderly classrooms, good morale, involved parents, and achievement in learning.
More of such schools are there to be recognized. Others can emulate them when their informative examples are added to the community resources to do the job.