LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — For black Americans, history has been a chronicle of overcoming obstacles. Even after the end of slavery, they endured Jim-Crow laws, stereotypes, and racism that clipped their dreams of a better life - and limited their access to an education that could give them a means to achieve it.
Now, after decades of reform - from school desegregation to tougher curricula in the classroom - African-American students for the first time are graduating from high school at the same rate as whites are.
"It's a positive step, achieving a goal we've sought for 25 years," says David Grissmer, an education researcher at the Rand Corp. in Washington. "It also means this is very slow business and it takes persistence."
A new US Census Bureau survey reports that about 87 percent of blacks and whites ages 25 to 29 have high-school diplomas. A generation earlier, the gap in graduation rates was nearly 20 percentage points.
For Fatima Jowan McKindra, the first African-American female elected student body president at Little Rock's historic Central High School., there's a recognition of black gains in education.
"We have choices now," says Fatima, who last September addressed President Clinton and the nation during a commemoration of of those who broke the color barrier at Central High 40 years ago. "I could direct my own path at Central. If I wanted to be in advanced-placement classes, I was told early on I could achieve that. For so many years, African-American students didn't have the chance to succeed."
But she's also aware of goals yet to be achieved. While Fatima won a financial-aid package that will enable here to attend Spelman College in Atlanta in the fall, she knows that many of her classmates will not go to college.
Indeed, the census survey shows that only 14 percent of young African-Americans have earned bachelor's degrees, compared with 29 percent for whites. Moreover, black males continue to be the lowest college-attending group, indicating a need to continue to aim intervention programs at African-American boys.
The new parity in high-school graduation rates "is not a signal that there are no more major inequities in society," says Mr. Grissmer. "But it is a sign that you can make significant achievements through concerted government intervention."
Grissmer, who has tracked 25 years of test scores of the nation's children, notes that President Johnson's War on Poverty and "real changes in the schools" are among the reasons for a narrowing gap in achievement tests between white and black students. (That disparity in test scores now stands between 18 and 30 percentile points, he says.)
Education reformers herald the census study as proof that almost two decades of attention to and innovation in the schools are reaping rewards.
"We are seeing a huge payoff that started in the early 1980s with the mega-reform laws in education and the "Nation at Risk" report," says Chris Peiope of the Education Commission of the States in Denver.
In the early 1980s, many states started programs to help at-risk youth, the majority of whom were African-American. Drop-out prevention programs, a movement to urge minorities to take college-placement exams, higher graduation requirements, and better-trained teachers all contributed to better schooling for black children, education analysts say.
"The school systems have been hammering away on these kinds of programs," says Mr. Peiope. "If they want to keep these numbers, they will have to keep it up."
The new survey does indicate that education-reform efforts are beginning to pay dividends, agrees William Taylor, chairman of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington and a civil rights lawyer.
But he also notes that problems still loom large in certain pockets of America - particularly inner-city public schools.
"In St. Louis, the [high school] graduation rate at schools with a high population of children [who qualify for subsidized meals] is still 30 percent or less," Mr. Taylor says. By contrast, poor children in suburban schools graduate at a much higher rate, he adds.
Hispanics and women
The census report also indicates that Hispanic students are graduating from high school at the highest levels ever - but that they lag far behind whites and blacks. Fifty-five percent of Hispanics over age 25 have high-school diplomas.
The new report also marks the first time young women have surpassed young men in educational attainment. At the high-school level, 89 percent of women ages 25 to 29 had graduated in 1997. Young women also led in college completion, 29 percent to 26 percent.
Central High's Fatima Jowan McKindra feels fortunate to have the opportunity to attend college. She plans to major in biology at Spelman, an African-American all-female college. "We have choices, now" she says. "We can choose our paths, and that's what we are doing."