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.
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.
To many, the presence of the all-white private school provides a debilitating contrast to public education.
``We're not as smart as they are,'' says 10-year-old Susan Roberts, comparing what she has heard about her class and the children who attend Patrick Henry. ``And some of the people at the private school don't want us there, the blacks.''
Then she bursts out with sudden hurt at her exclusion. ``A school is a place where you can learn from and have an education from. Why should that be private? It's not fair. It's not right.''
Susan is one who believes in education. ``My grandmother and aunties say I should study hard and make something of myself,'' the fourth-grader reports, as her grandmother, Martha Roberts, nods in approval. Outside the family's trailer, one battered car roars down Highway 321, disappearing in the shimmering heat. But Susan sees beyond the empty landscape to the promise of the future.
Other children, witnessing the struggle of their families simply to survive, put less faith in the power of education. ``I think most of the students just don't care,'' says Susan's sister, Mushell, 16, noting that about half of her classmates drop out. ``They probably just give up.''
For white children living in Hampton II school district, life is very different.
``I don't know of any children who left our private school who haven't done well,'' says Mary Eleanor Bowers, whose husband helped found Patrick Henry Academy and whose grandsons now attend. ``I'm so proud of our little school I could just whoop and holler.''
About 80 percent of the academy's 260 students go on to college. Last year on the comprehensive test of basic skills, normed to national standards, fourth-graders at Patrick Henry made an average score of 78 in math and 80 in reading. By comparison, fourth-graders at Hampton II scored 19 in math and 30 in reading.
``A lot of people in Estill consider people who go to Patrick Henry snobbish,'' admits John Green, a recent grad who is a freshman at the College of Charleston and a grandson of Mrs. Bowers.
``But now in Estill the school system has gotten so bad that I don't think anyone would expect any of us to go there, except maybe some of the blacks who don't understand the difference,'' he adds.
Parents - including the businessmen, lawyers, and large landowners - do most substitute teaching at the private school and coach all sports as volunteers. Fathers brought out tractors and built the football field.
``We have real good parent participation,'' says headmaster Michael Miller. ``All we have to do when we want something done is contact a parent who can provide that kind of leadership.''
The academy raises money for its projects easily. This year students planned a school trip to the Bahamas. At a recent fund-raising event, a prime-rib dinner followed by an auction, the academy raised $20,000 in one evening.
The Ray Greens, parents of John, Corrin, and Andrew, provide one example of parental involvement. Mr. Green, a self-employed land surveyor, coaches football at Patrick Henry. Mrs. Green, a housewife, is a grade mother for the ninth grade and helps Corrin's teacher plan field trips and special events.
This commitment to the school is a way of nourishing the core of a close-knit white community, linked by similar values, habits, and life style. But that community acts in isolation from the black families around them.
``People around here are afraid to send their children [to the public school], because the percentage of blacks is such that they won't be accepted,'' says 16-year-old Corrin, sitting in tennis clothes in his family's high-ceilinged living room.
``They wouldn't have many friends. At Patrick Henry, you know everyone there.''
``You've got a social thing,'' his grandmother, Mrs. Bowers, affirms. ``If all your friends' children are going to one school, you want your children to go there, too. It's like if your friends belong to one country club, that's the one you want to belong to.
``I know we're all the same in God's eyes,'' she says. ``But it's just one of those situations.''
But the disparity of resources between black and white families here is not a matter of chance. Both blacks and whites recall that about 30 years ago, white farmers who controlled local politics discouraged a giant Westinghouse plant and other industry from locating in the Hampton II district. It was said that farmers didn't want competing jobs - with higher wages - for black workers.
Now farm employment has all but vanished, while widespread poverty and illiteracy remain. And the inequality of education between black and white children reinforces positions of poverty and privilege instead of helping blacks move up.
The business community today is working to attract industry to the district. ``We all understand that if our community and region is going to advance, it will require advancement for everybody,'' says Robert S. Gifford, head of the Hampton County Industrial Commission.
Industry is reluctant to locate in a district with an impaired school system, he notes.
But the only businessman in the district to work with public school students is Ernest Friedrichsen, proprietor of the popular Ernie's Restaurant. In cooperation with the reading supervisor, Mr. Friedrichsen offers hamburger dinners to students who read a certain number of books or make the best grades each marking period.
A German immigrant with an accent, Friedrichsen is not a parent and has lived in Estill only six years.
White citizens say they are unsure of their responsibilities to the larger community. ``Obviously I'm looking after my children,'' notes Ray Green. ``Now where does my responsibility start and stop? I don't know.''
Some look to state and federal money to solve school problems.
School administrators cite progress younger students have made since the state began funding a preschool program five years ago. New projects this year include remedial classes for students who fail the exit exam, programs to improve teaching effectiveness, and a tutorial program for the summer.
The new federal education bill, the Hawkins-Stafford Act, earmarks funds to upgrade high school students' basic skills. The funds are to be channeled to poorer school districts, and Hampton II seems a candidate.
But lack of money does not seem to be Hampton II's root problem. Between state funding and a high local tax rate, the district's spending per pupil, $3,152 a year, is already well above the state average.
``The money is adequate to do the job,'' says district budget director Jack Dimond. What school spending has not overcome, he says, is the daily example of struggle and defeat played out in adult lives.
A political solution proposed to the problems of public education is a merger of the two school districts in Hampton County. Most of Hampton County's industry, and the majority of its white public school students, are in Hampton I district, north of Coosawhatchie Swamp.
But parents in Hampton I oppose a merger with a school system considered one of the state's worst. And the county's legislative delegation, which controls the decision, has so far ignored the proposal.
Whether the problems of the school will be solved on a local level depends on the ability of the district's citizens to unite behind a common purpose. ``Everybody down here wants good education, whether you're talking about the people in the private school or people in public school,'' says Mr. Workman, the Methodist minister.
The question is whether the sense of dis-ease that haunts the divided citizens will be translated into action.