Busing works OK, but will city schools draw newcomers?

Well into the second year of major school desegregation in Austin, school officials are pronouncing the effort a success - and backing up their claims with test scores and attendance figures.

''Ten years ago we had busing of blacks to all-white schools. Now we have tri-ethnic desegregation, and it's going remarkably well,'' says the Austin Independent School District superintendent, Dr. John Ellis.

Not everyone, however, is satisfied with the school board's efforts so far. The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) may take the school board back to court.

But Dr. Ellis, a former deputy commissioner in the US Office of Education, maintains that for all three ethnic groups at nearly all grade levels, verbal and math scores improved during the first year of desegregation--although minority students still trail whites.

Attendance at all levels increased during the 1980-81 school year--the first year of so-called tri-ethnic (black, white, and Hispanic) desegregation. This is despite about 4 percent ''white flight''--white students leaving the district or enrolling in private schools.

According to district figures, elementary school attendance rose modestly from 93.6 percent during the 1979-80 school year to 93.8 percent during the 1980 -81 school year. Similarly, attendance at junior highs rose from 91.3 to 92 percent and at high schools from 89.75 to 90 percent.

Some observers expect even more students next year.

But Volma Overton, head of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, argues that white attendance at 11 schools in the district remains below the federal district court's guidelines. Mr. Overton, whose daughter was the main plaintiff in the original suit against the school board, says that NAACP lawyers are exploring the possibility of action to bring the 11 schools into compliance, perhaps by redrawing the attendance boundaries for those schools.

The black community also is waiting for a new school to be built in East Austin--part of the desegregation consent decree. The only black schools in the district were closed during an early desegregation attempt.

Meanwhile, the problems that are occurring are being attributed in part, at least, to the reassignment of some 1,000 teachers as part of the desgregation effort.

''Desegregation underscores teacher inadequacies,'' says Donna Green, president of the Austin Alliance for a Smooth Transition. She adds that some white teachers had a hard time teaching pupils from environments where education hadn't been stressed.

Likewise, says school district desegregation specialist Dan Robertson, teachers from minority schools were transferred to areas where many parents took a more active interest in their children's schooling. Minority teachers had to get used to having parents looking over their shoulders.

School officials, who have been grappling with desegregation since the first US Justice Department suit against Austin in 1970, see several reasons for the relative smoothness of the transition.

''We mounted a formidable, grass-roots information campaign, meeting with parents and students on a school-by-school basis,'' says Mr. Robertson. That effort included trial bus runs for parents during the summer of 1980 to give them an idea of how far their children would be traveling.

Dr. Ellis, who became superintendent in June 1980, rode the buses unannounced on the first day of school to get firsthand knowledge of how the effort was progressing.

Officials readily admit more challenges are possible during the coming two years of court oversight. They also recognize a need to plan for the future.

Currently, there are 54,000 pupils in the system. And officials project the school population will grow with the city, to more than 60,000 by 1990.

To cope with this growth will require rapid mobilization. The school system hasn't had a bond issue for 12 years because of the uncertainty cast by desegregation efforts.

This has led school officials to establish ''Forming for the Future''--a task force of school people, business people, parents, and other volunteers. The goal: a comprehensive blueprint to make Austin a public education showcase.

''People are not convinced today that public schools are academically challenging,'' says Ellis. ''And we're starting to see the growth of suburbs around Austin. So as people move into this community, they are going to question whether they want to have their kids bused. We're trying to boost the quality of education to such a degree that busing no longer becomes a consideration.''

Willie J. Kocurek, a 70-year-old attorney who recently received his law degree and postponed setting up his practice to give time to the task force, says about 2,000 volunteers are systematically giving time to the project.

The task force is studying curriculum, facilities, personnel requirements, ways to retain teachers, and ways to push for much-needed school bond issues. Final recommendations are to go to the school board's trustees in mid-June.

''In five years, Austin should be top in public education,'' says Dr. Ellis. ''Come back in a year, and if we aren't making progress, hold our feet to the fire.''

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