IN this community of sagging shacks and half-buried tires, Helen Williams is teaching Clara Dobbins educational games. It's a small activity that's indicative of Arkansas bootstrapping itself out of poverty.
Ms. Williams, from The Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY), is showing Ms. Dobbins how to teach her four-year-old the names of colors and shapes.
Unlike many low-income children who start kindergarden without these skills, HIPPY children "take off with a bang," says Williams, once a program participant herself.
In Arkansas, HIPPY just doubled to 4,500 families - more than in all other states combined, thanks to funding from a state education bill pushed by Gov. Bill Clinton.
Results from yesterday's New Hampshire Democratic primary will show whether voters paid more heed to candidate Clinton's alleged draft-dodging and marital infidelity or to his campaign positions and record as the nation's longest-serving governor. Governor's achievements
Clinton's welfare reforms are moving hundreds of people per month off the dole and back into the workplace. His economic development efforts caused manufacturing jobs to increase at 11 times the national rate from 1985 to 1989.
Half of his staff have been women and a quarter have been African American during his tenure. He increased by fivefold State Highway Department spending with minority contractors.
Above all, Clinton has crusaded to improve the state education system. In 1978, when he first moved into the governor's mansion (he was ousted in 1980 but returned in 1982), out-of-state consultant Kern Alexander concluded that Arkansas children would be better off educated almost anywhere else.
Back then, rural, agriculture-oriented Arkansans spent little on education, says Dr. Alexander, now a professor at Virginia Tech. Then Clinton "instituted a dialogue that the people of Arkansas had never had before regarding the value of education," Alexander says.
The public change of attitude was "quite remarkable," he noticed on return visits to the state. "I would have to give a strong vote of confidence" to Clinton's handling of education, Alexander says. Other states with greater resources have done less, he adds.
Observers also credit Clinton's wife, Hillary, who spearheaded much of the work on education reform. It was she who learned of Israeli-designed HIPPY in 1986 and brought it to Arkansas. Reform a tough fight
Clinton fought for and passed major reform legislation in 1983 and 1989. "The odds were really against him," says Robert Steel, news director at KARK-TV. "You should see our legislature in action."
The wealthy and the business lobby prevented him from increasing personal and corporate income taxes to fund his reforms. Instead, Clinton had to settle for raising the sales tax, which falls hardest on the poor. But he also passed tax cuts for the poor and elderly.
His education reforms raised teacher pay but weeded out incompetent instructors, required eighth-graders to pass a test before going on to high school, shrank class sizes, and mandated that all districts offer college prerequisite courses in math and science. Dropouts younger than 18 faced the possibility of having their driver's license suspended, while parents who refused to attend conferences with teachers could be fined.
The results so far: Arkansas is 10th in numbers of computers per pupil, 17th in teachers per pupil. The dropout rate is lower than the national average. Enrollment in advanced math and science classes has tripled. The proportion of high school graduates going on to college rose from 38 percent to more than 51 percent, bettering the national average.
At the primary school in Lonoke, a rice-farming community half an hour's drive east of Little Rock, Julia Fletcher is the resident full-time counselor to the six- to nine-year-old students.
"My mother said the same thing when I got the job: Why do they need counselors?" Ms. Fletcher recalls. She helps students cope with parents' divorce and starts warning them about alcohol and drugs when they are in kindergarten. All primary schools are now required to have counselors. Schools on upswing
At Pulaski Heights Junior High, in the center of Little Rock, principal Ralph Hoffman describes the previous evening's open house for seventh-graders and their parents. It drew 300 visitors, "by far the largest number I've ever had at an event like that."
Mr. Hoffman credits the increase in parental involvement to the school's two-year-old restructuring, in which teachers from different subjects are assigned to teams that have all the same students, and can therefore set common goals and expectations. Discipline problems have all but vanished and academic performance has soared.
"Not only has white flight stopped; we are getting [white students] back from private schools," he says. His school restructured with money from a private foundation. More schools will do so using state money authorized by Act 236, a Clinton-sponsored bill passed in the last session of the legislature.
In his corner office overlooking the capitol building, Board of Education director Burton Elliott proudly proffers a fat booklet detailing the 110 education-related acts passed in the last session.
Most significant is Act 236 - a shakedown of the entire state education system aimed at meeting the goals (a 90-percent high school graduation rate, US students first in the world in math and science, etc.) adopted in 1990 by President Bush and the nation's governors.
Another new law, Act 259, orders creation of a math and science boarding school for 150 each of the most proficient juniors and seniors. Tuition, room and board, and all other costs will be paid by the state.
In addition, the state will provide $1,000 college scholarships to 12,000 students who couldn't otherwise afford it.
"We still have a lot to do, and we're certainly not complacent," Mr. Elliott says. Arkansas has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy among blacks and the second highest among whites, for an overall No. 2 rating.
The conservative populace has resisted Clinton's efforts to have schools distribute condoms, but in the handful of schools that have, the pregnancy rate has dropped.
Arkansas remains one of the poorest states, though. Clinton's own campaign material admits that his programs haven't solved all of the problems that have been building here for generations.
"Yes, we're still 49th in a lot of things," says KARK-TV's Robert Steel. "But we're better off than we were."