UNTIL the 1991-92 school year, students at Central High School in Kansas City for more than a decade worked out of 10- to 20-year-old textbooks, and teachers placed buckets in classrooms to catch rain that fell through holes in the decrepit roof.
Today, the school, which emphasizes an education in the Greek tradition, has facilities that rival many colleges, especially in the athletic arena. An eight-lane, 50-meter swimming pool and a gym with state-of-the-art gymnastics equipment are among the new facilities. A core curriculum of math, science, English, and history is supplemented with courses in Greek art, language, and architecture. Students participate in Greek plays in a 300-seat amphitheater with a stage framed by white columns.
"This district started with nothing," says Tim Brennan, a social-studies teacher. Now, "No one will match our facilities. It's a tremendous opportunity for children right now." Mr. Brennan says that for the first time in more than two decades, the school has seen an increase in its nonminority population - one of its goals.
Central, which hopes to become a training ground for future Olympic athletes, is one of 72 once-crumbling Kansas City schools that are being rebuilt or renovated as a result of a 1985 court desegregation order. Educators say the undertaking is the most ambitious and, at $1.2 billion, the most expensive experiment in restructuring an inner-city school system in the United States.
"We really believe strongly that we have an opportunity to change education for urban schools," says Art Rainwater, associate superintendent of the Kansas City, Mo., School District.
Grand as the plan is, it is drawing criticism from some parents of minority school children, who say they have been shut out of the planning process and that the schools don't address the cultural needs of minority students but cater to middle-class whites.
"For the most part we're spending hundreds of millions of dollars and getting a small return on our investment," says Clinton Adams, a parent whose daughter attends one of the schools.
Kansas City, like many urban school districts in the US, for years lacked the money to invest in improving its schools.
"I can remember ... taking heads of corporations here on short tours," says Arthur A. Benson II, the lawyer who represented the plaintiff schoolchildren in a lawsuit brought against the district and the state in 1984. At one school, "It was so bad that I saw grown men leaving with tears in their eyes. You could not believe the horrible stench, the oppressive heat, the overcrowding, lack of emergency exits, dilapidated desks, torn-up tiles in the floor. Here were all these little kids ... and that was how
they were being educated."
Between 1985 and 1987, US District Judge Russell G. Clark issued a series of unique remedy orders to improve and desegregate the schools. He ruled in favor of the plaintiff's voluntary plan, which recommended making the schools so attractive that whites would want to come back to inner-city classrooms. The program included turning the schools into "magnets" - schools that teach the three R's but specialize in areas such as performing arts, science, or foreign languages - in order to attract students. Cla rk also said the quality of education must improve. He ordered Missouri to pay most of the expenses.
Since the rebuilding process began about four years ago, 10 schools have been torn down, and modern structures have taken their place. Others have undergone major renovation. Sixteen remaining schools are waiting their turn.
The nearly $1.2 billion makeover has enabled the Kansas City School District to equip the schools with some of the best facilities, programs, and personnel money can buy. That includes computers for every student in the computer magnet schools; greenhouses, science labs, and an outdoor amphitheater at an elementary environmental science school; and teachers and athletic coaches from countries such as Spain, Germany, and Russia.
As part of the desegregation plan, Kansas City schools are expected to change the current 74 percent black, 26 percent white ratio to 60/40. Each magnet is supposed to increase the number of whites by 2 percent a year. The court monitoring committee and a judge evaluate student achievement test scores and black/white ratios every year.
Although critics complain that this changeover isn't happening fast enough, school-district officials say they have stopped white flight and have started to increase the percentage of whites.
"We're looking at the year 1998 to get to 65/35, and so I would think sometime after '98 we should have 60/40 if we're successful," says Walter Marks, the district's superintendent.
Some individual magnet schools have been more successful than others. Knotts Environmental Science School, a brand-new $5 million elementary school set on lush green acreage with nature trails, has a waiting list. The school has achieved a 60/40 black/white ratio in kindergarten. "We think [the success] has to do with the interest of the theme and the quality of our teaching staff," says Carolyn Hill, an instructional assistant.
At Martin Luther King Middle School, which Rainwater says was "your worst nightmare" three years ago because of crime and other problems, students now wear uniforms. In April, the school defeated two private schools in a citywide Latin contest.
Other magnet schools lag behind. Some are still more than 90 percent minority; overall the student dropout rate is high; and achievement test scores remain below the national average.
Many in the minority community feel they are being shortchanged.
"We have all these elaborate magnet-theme programs that are designed not to serve the interests of primarily African-American students, who were the adjudicated victims of the separate-but-equal school system, but designed to appeal to the suburban whites," says Mr. Adams, a parent. He says the schools need to develop programs that teach minorities about their culture.
"We have a largely white teaching staff and primarily minority student body, and there's a lot of cultural conflict in the classroom," he says. "Because of lack of cultural understanding between teachers and students ... we have a high suspension rate and high dropout rate because they [the teachers] don't know how to relate to the kids."
THOSE working in the school district acknowledge that they have some daunting challenges to meet.
"It's easy to build new buildings and get equipment in. What's difficult is to change the quality of instruction in the classrooms. We have a ways to go in that regard," says Benson.
Dr. Marks says lack of leadership has also tainted the district's image: "We just turn over principals every year. It's a terrible problem perceived as nobody can do the job or it's too tough for them." He says those problems are being addressed and cites a staff development program to help teachers learn new skills, an early retirement program, and tougher teacher evaluations.
Those who remember the decaying school system of the past say that even though much still needs to be accomplished, the schools have come a long way.
"More students are taking school seriously," says Pamela Peppers, a computer curriculum coordinator at Central, which in addition to being a Greek magnet school is also a computer magnet school. "They work harder. We can do more things than before."
The change is "real dramatic," says Michael Murphy, a sophomore in Central's computer program, who says access to equipment such as computers is a real plus. The way the school is structured now "helps give you a chance and prepare you for college."
The district, which has been operating under a six-year desegregation plan, is now writing another multiyear financial plan it will submit to Judge Clark this summer. Marks says that once the capital improvements for the schools are complete, operating costs should decrease. Then, a combination of state and local funds will finance the district, with more money coming from local support. The expenditures have generated resentment from some state school districts, which complain that Missouri is spending millions of dollars on Kansas City while other districts are reeling from budget cuts.
Kansas City school officials remain optimistic.
"One of the things that happens I think when you put in the kind of money that has gone into this project is people expect an immediate turnaround, and that just isn't going to happen," says Rainwater. "It is going to take a long time to remedy the vestiges of desegregation that were here."