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Children of a split community. Black parents in Estill, S.C., say they're concerned about the quality of education, not with integration - but in this district the two are linked

By Nancy HerndonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 19, 1988

Estill, S.C.

THE two-story, red-brick Hampton II Elementary School stands in the center of this shady Southern village of 2,400. In any other town it might be a symbol of citizens' unity and commitment to the future. But instead, for this rural district 90 miles south of the state capital, Columbia, it's a symbol of divisiveness.

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In Hampton II district, education - like nearly every other aspect of life - is strikingly unequal for black and white children. And some white parents are wondering uncomfortably about their responsibility.

``There is a sense of `dis-ease' in the town about what to do with the school,'' says the Rev. Henry Workman, a United Methodist minister in Estill. Last December, state officials ranked the public school system here, which mostly black children attend, as ``seriously impaired.'' Most white children attend an all-white private academy.

Once all of the white children here attended the public schools in the Hampton II district. But when the public schools were integrated in 1965 - bringing in five times the number of black children as white from the rural countryside - the white parents formed the Patrick Henry Academy.

Now 94 percent of the 1,500 children attending kindergarten through 12th Grade at Hampton II are black. And the school system, once considered acceptable, has deteriorated badly.

``My teacher be telling us it be a bad school,'' confirms fourth-grader Bernadette Taylor, playing in her neighborhood of peeling wooden houses on the outskirts of Estill. ``I think it's sad.''

``I resent it,'' states Bennie Hazel, a father of three in the public school. Mr. Hazel is founder of a group of about 25 black parents who have volunteered to work with teachers and administrators to try to improve the school.

But Hazel wonders whether parents can solve the school's fundamental problems. In a review two years ago, state officials enumerated those problems as deficient curriculum, lack of teaching skills and remedial programs, high teacher turnover, and low expectations for students' performance.

``Just to be a concerned parent does not give us the expertise to get where we need to go,'' Hazel says. And 25 parents, he notes, are not enough.

Hazel and others say they are primarily concerned with the quality of public education, not with integration. But there is no doubt that in this district the two are linked.

``You don't have many whites in this community, but they have such power that it's hard to do anything without their involvement,'' says school board chairman Willie Orr, noting that most of the county's wealth and educational resources are in white hands.

Virtually all businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and large-scale farmers in the district are white. On the other hand, the black community is marked by so much poverty that about 78 percent of public school students are eligible for a free lunch.

When the public school has a fund-raiser, ``people dig into their pockets and give us loose change,'' says Mr. Orr, a father of five who works as a night-shift supervisor in the northern end of the county. As he talks this morning, one of his neighbors stands outside her tin-roofed, tar-papered house, hand washing her clothes.

About a third of black parents commute long distances to work - to Allendale County, Augusta, or Savannah. More than 100 take rural transportation buses to Hilton Head Island, 70 miles away, where they fill low-wage housekeeping and gardening jobs. The buses leave Estill at 5 in the morning and return at 7 at night.

``How can those parents attend a PTA meeting?'' asks Annease Goodman, the mother of a sixth-grader.

Other black parents hesitate to approach the school, in a district where 62 percent of adults never finished high school, and many are illiterate.