Last month, six teen-age girls, escorted by lawyers, waded through a throng of reporters and TV camera crews to register for classes at Central High School here. It was the first day of the academic year, and as the young women opened the bright green doors of one of America's oldest public high schools, they laid to rest a 147-year tradition of all-male education.
Amid glares and grumbles from some of the 1,200 male students at the city's most prestigious high school, the six enrolled for classes. A county judge had ordered the school district to accept the girls as a result of a sex-discrimination suit filed in August of 1982.
After Common Pleas Judge William Marutani issued his ruling, more girls applied and were accepted to Central (as of Sept. 27). Dozens of other young women have applied to the school.
The original plaintiffs, Elizabeth Newberg, Jessica Bonn, and Pauline King, all 17, were represented in their suit by lawyers from Philadelphia's Women's Law Project and the American Civil Liberties Union. All three had attended Philadelphia High School for Girls.
''I am glad we did what we did,'' said Pauline King, one of the girls now attending Central and a descendant of Declaration of Independence signer Thomas Heyward. ''I'm not sure that Heyward would have been for this. I don't think women were supposed to read or write back then.''
Many of the male students were against the new admissions policy.
''The girls are just out to get attention,'' said Charles Somers, 16. ''If they really thought we had better programs here, they could have asked the school district to fund similar programs at their school.''
But David Harwitz, 17, editor of the school newspaper, Centralizer, agreed with the court's decision. ''It's a good idea. I'll enjoy having them in school. The discrimination was blatantly sexual.''
Central High has been Philadelphia's public school for academically talented boys. To be admitted, students must score in the 82nd percentile or better in the California Achievement Test, and earn no less than A's and B's for the two previous years, with minor exceptions. The city also provides a school for academically talented girls, but the suit contended that Philadelphia High School for Girls was greatly inferior to Central.
Both the board of education and Central High Alumni Association oppose the judge's ruling and argue that girls receive an equal education at the Philadelphia High School for Girls.
''It is our position that both schools are excellent facilities - and equal in the educational opportunities afforded to students,'' said Barry Klayman, an attorney for the Philadelphia School District.
In his opinion, Marutani found that Central was clearly superior to the girls' school and therefore violated the 14th Amendment's equal-protection provision and Pennsylvania's Equal Rights Amendment. He cited statistics that indicated Central's students scored higher on standardized achievement tests and were accepted at colleges more readily. He also noted that almost 100 percent of Central graduates attended college, as against less than 88 percent of the girls' high graduates.
Central High School's famous alumni include Thomas Eakins, the painter; Alexander Woollcott, the writer; Noam Chomsky, the linguist; and Louis Kahn, the architect. Its reputation for academic excellence extends through two centuries, and many of its powerful and vocal alumni are intent on helping their alma mater regain its single-gender educational status.
Pop music publisher Kal Rudman, of Cherry Hill, N.J., is a 1947 graduate of Central, who feels strongly about the change in admissions policy. ''I believe in the concept of single-sex schools. Members of the opposite sex can be very distracting, especially during the high school years. Ironically, if I had a daughter who wanted to attend Central, I'd support her 100 percent. However, I have offered my help to the alumni association in whatever action they decide to take in fighting this.''
The alumni association has adopted a resolution urging the school district to appeal the judge's order.
Two weeks after school opened, about 100 male students protested the enrollment of additional women by briefly walking out of class. The walkout ended a short time later when students agreed to address their concern to the board of education. Since then, tension at the school has waned.
''The mood here is good,'' said Central principal Charles Edleson. ''The girls are excellent students. They just want to be left alone to do their work.''
When plaintiff's attorney Arthur Bryant heard of the walkout, he shook his head. ''It's a sad commentary on what the boys are being taught at Central. And it is exactly why girls must go there.''
The board of education filed exceptions to the judge's ruling shortly after it was handed down. Those exceptions were dismissed on Sept. 27. It is now up to the school district to decide whether or not to appeal the decision. A successful appeal could place the female students at Central in an academic twilight zone until a final determination is made in the courts.