WITHIN a stone's throw of a dirty, damaged, graffiti-scarred public housing project here in central Cleveland sits the Alfred A. Benesch Elementary School - its red bricks bright, its windows clean, and not a word of graffiti marring its walls.
The school stands as a small but striking symbol of the newfound pride and budding optimism that are palpable in this depressed industrial city's 77,000 -student school system. After years of turmoil during the implementation of court-ordered desegregation, of falling enrollment and test scores, and of financial crisis, a number of events have occurred to buoy the city's downtrodden schools:
* Last year reading scores rose sharply among both black and white students, debunking general wisdom that white students' scores remain stable or suffer after desegregation.
* Enrollment has stabilized and even increased slightly this year - significant for an urban, recently desegregated system.
* For the first time in 13 years, voters last fall approved a levy increase. Adding $32 million annually to school coffers, it paves the way for a long-awaited teacher-salary increase, and helps bring a balanced budget to a system that not long ago was virtually bankrupt.
Many Clevelanders would add Frederick Holliday to this list of what's right about the city's schools. Dr. Holliday arrived 18 months ago to become the system's superintendent. In that short time the city's first black, first outsider school chief has made a name for himself throughout the Buckeye State and in educational circles beyond. His trademark is a mix of tough policies and genial public relations.
Just how much influence one individual can have in turning around a beleaguered school system is difficult to determine. Cleve-landers with an eye on the schools cite a number of factors contributing to the fledgling improvements, including a renewed interest in education, and calm in the city after years of tension during desegregation. Also cited is implementation of the full desegregation plan, which mandates changes in everything from management and organization to reading programs and student services. But it is clear that in a number of circles, Dr. Holliday is garnering his share of credit.
The 57-year-old Philadelphia native, a longtime teacher and administrator in that city before becoming superintendent in York, Pa., and Plainfield, N.J., has kept busy outlining his creed of rigorous standards and high expectations before civic groups, on television, and during daily visits to the city's schools. With his impeccable suits, designer glasses, and the demeanor of a corporate executive, Doc Holliday, as he is known, gives the impression of a man here to ''take care of business.''
Those who are less than convinced by his tactics often employ the term ''showman'' to describe this very public school superintendent. But others insist that Dr. Holliday was no fool to first establish his name and philosophy among the public and community leaders.
One close observer of Cleveland's schools noted that, ''Fred Holliday plays even better in the suburbs than right in the city. And that's significant, because the people who run Cleveland live in the suburbs.''
That strong public support was crucial in the November approval of a nine-mill levy increase, which adds $68 to the average homeowner's property tax bill and will finance salary hikes, computers, textbooks, and needed but long-ignored building repairs. Business leaders contributed heavily to a $350, 000 campaign to pass the increase, while students and teachers went door to door for a measure most people said a strapped Cleveland would never approve.
There is some concern here that beyond his sweeping calls for achievement based on hard work and discipline, Dr. Holliday's vision may not include the nuts and bolts of educational reform needed to bring about a true renaissance in the city's schools. Some describe the superintendent as a generalist who doesn't have the top-notch staff a delegator needs to do the painstaking detail work.
Says Leonard Stevens, director of the court-appointed desegregation monitoring agency, ''From here on out, increases in attendance and achievement will depend on other old values, like keeping first-rate teachers, and treating kids individually.''
But, when asked, the superintendent can tick off what he considers concrete accomplishments. Among them: teachers' union give-backs, including having detailed lesson planning built into their contract; a requirement that teachers spend more time with principals; landing a grant to help principals develop their skills; a $1.3 million computer leasing program Holliday says will ensure that students have equipment that is up to the minute; an in-house suspension program; and a computerized attendance checking system that includes automatic letter-writing to parents of truants, and frees attendance watchdogs to telephone absent students.
''Our attendance is up several percentage points (to about 89 percent) since I came here,'' Holliday notes, ''and, if we don't get the kids here first, we certainly can't teach them anything.''
But Dr. Holliday says he is often frustrated by a creaking bureaucracy. ''This system is run like a mom-'n-pop store instead of the quarter-of-a-billion-dollar industry it is.'' One guesses that he is not comfortable with the federal court handling the eight-year-old desegregation plan. ''I think we've proven that we're up to handling the schools on our own,'' he says.
The fact remains that the court will not end the case until it is satisfied that a long list of improvements - in management, organization, and instruction - has been made. The court has said it would like to pull out sometime in 1985, but many observers maintain that Dr. Holliday is not moving as fast as he could to implement the court's remaining demands.
Although many say he is opposed to desegregation, Dr. Holliday protests that characterization. ''I'm for quality integrated education - but I'm against busing schemes and patterns that do not work.'' Claiming it is ''extremely difficult'' to achieve large-scale integration in a school system that is 70 percent black, he adds that the real issue in American schools is integration by social class.
As for his goals for Cleveland's schools, Dr. Holliday says he wants to see reading and math scores rise to the national median (right now students, except first graders, read at below national levels, but with last year's major improvements the gap is narrowing); wants the schools to be safe and inviting, with modern equipment to usher students into the high-tech working world; and wants to introduce business practices whereby the schools will pay off obligations ''in a timely manner.''
Beyond Cleveland, Dr. Holliday says he thinks he has ''one more big city left in me.'' (He was a finalist for Philadelphia's top schools post when Cleveland hired him, and was tapped by Chicago in 1980 before Jesse Jackson called to tell him that he felt outsiders would not receive the support of the city's blacks). Either that, he muses, or perhaps a state or national post.
But Frederick Holliday says he hopes to have until the end of a second three-year term - 1988 - to accomplish what he came to do. ''There's a lot to do , and not much time,'' he adds, revealing the schoolboy's impatience some here associate with their superintendent. ''We need a sense of urgency. I don't have forever.''