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Despite the recent scandals in intercollegiate athletics, the belief that success in sports and excellence in academics are complementary isn't dead. Here, for example, is a high school that has staunchly upheld that ideal for all but a couple of its 53 years.
In the fall of 1957 Central High in Little Rock, Ark. won its 10th state football championship and extended its victory streak to 33 games. The following spring Central won its 20th Arkansas track and field championship in 22 years, and the theme of the senior prom was "Moonlight and Roses." All in all a typical year for an exceptional high school. Except for one thing: the soldiers from the 101st Airborne and the National Guard who'd been stationed in the halls to ensure that nine black students got to and from class safely each day. By year's end Central High had become a landmark in the history of the civil-rights movement.
The next fall Governor Orval Faubus and the citizens of Little Rock decided that having no school was better than allowing black kids to study with white ones, so the only public high school in Arkansas' largest city stood empty—no classes, no prom, no nothing. Except football. After all, the team was riding a hot streak, and what could be allowed to interfere with that?
Central High may remain a symbol of bigotry and callous indifference to racial equality in the rest of the U.S., but in Little Rock, citizens proudly point to it today as a model inner-city biracial school (56% of the 1,900 students are black). It consistently turns out Arkansas' top young scholars and athletes and places them in the nation's most selective colleges. These kids really produce: 24 state athletic championships since 1970; the nation's top high school newspaper in 1978; 14 National Merit semifinalists in 1980; SAT scores 46 points higher than the national average. No wonder 41 students from private schools transferred to Central last semester.
"During the '60s we were hell-bent to regain our excellence and to counter our image in the media," says Kaye Taylor, one of seven teachers who have been at the school since '57. "I often wonder whether we would have the spirit and quality we have today had we not gone through that critical period."
The consensus among Little Rockers is no. They know that you value something more when it has been lost for a while. More important, they believed that the school and its traditions were worth preserving. Since it opened in 1927. Central has been the pacesetter for secondary education in the state. No schoolhouse in the country had cost as much to build ($1.5 million), and soon after Central's completion, the National Association of Architects selected it as "the Most Beautiful High School in America."
From the beginning, students sensed that their school was special, and their achievements reflected that attitude. They also had another motive for excelling. "The teachers and coaches were very aware of the national image of Arkansas as being a backward, rural, partially uncivilized place," says Herbert Rule, Central '55, who's now a lawyer and member of the Little Rock school board. "They beat it into us that we were as good academically and athletically as any school in the nation. They made us feel the same pride that they did."
The most visible manifestation of that pride came on the playing field. Attending a Central game was and still is the thing to do on Friday night in Little Rock. In fact, says Rule. "The strong athletic tradition that the school had built over the years was a key reason the people never gave up on Central during the tough times. As a result, I can't think of another public high school in the country that has had a more felicitous integration of its teams and student body and more top-level performances in the classroom and on the athletic field by blacks as well as whites."
And girls as well as boys. Mary Madden is an llth-grader who has competed in three state championship meets in two sports (swimming and track). She's also tied for No. 1 in her class academically with a 4.0 average.
Examples of such outstanding student-athletes are legion in Central's history, and two of the most notable are senior Scott McCord and Roosevelt Thompson, who's now a freshman in the honors program at Yale. Both were all-state football selections, Thompson as a guard and McCord as a center; both took the toughest courses the school offers—calculus, honors English, the works. Roosevelt, who also was president of the student body and the highest scorer in the state on the National Merit exam, made no grade below an A in three years at Central. Scott, president of the National Honor Society chapter and a national award winner in Latin, has gotten one B. Roosevelt is black; Scott is white.