RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The secretary of Education this week declared a new commitment to enforcing civil rights laws. Arne Duncan said the prior administration did not adequately examine civil rights issues in schools, and the Education Department is already looking at one place - the school system in Wayne County, North Carolina -where a controversy over redistricting is raging.

Dave Dewitt, of North Carolina Public Radio, reports.

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DAVE DEWITT: It's the end of a long day at Goldsboro High School, and students fill the narrow hallways on the way to buses, practices or home. Goldsboro is a classic American high school: white columns, two-story brick facade, transoms over the classroom doors. Sixty years ago - and just up the stairs at the end of the hallway - a teenage Carl Kasell took drama from an energetic teacher named Andy Griffith. Now, students like Michael King roam these hallways.

Mr. MICHAEL KING (Student, Goldsboro High School): And all the students here at Goldsboro High School have had a good opportunity to do anything they wanted to. Some just choose not to take the opportunity.

DEWITT: Michael is a success story, to be sure. He lives with his mother and brother; their only family income is her disability check. He hopes to go to college. But most of his peers won't escape the cycle of poverty here.

Patricia Burden is the principal at Goldsboro High School.

Ms. PATRICIA BURDEN (Principal, Goldsboro High School): I think you have students who truly believe that this is the way that I live, and this is the way I will continue to live. And so therefore, they do not have the broad perspective on the fact that it does not have to be this way.

DEWITT: About 80 percent of the students at Goldsboro High are poor; 99 percent are African-American. Other high schools in America have similar student bodies. But what makes Goldsboro High different is that the town and the school district are roughly 50-50 black/white.

The other five high schools in Wayne County are majority white or close to it, and don't have nearly the same levels of poverty.

Reverend William Barber is a pastor at the Greenleaf Christian Church in town, and he's also the president of the North Carolina NAACP.

Reverend WILLIAM BARBER (North Carolina NAACP): We have apartheid education in Wayne County.

DEWITT: Barber and the NAACP filed a complaint against the Wayne County Schools in December. They say the school board violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act when it created attendance areas that put the majority of the poor black students in one school zone, and failed to provide students in that zone with equal educational opportunities.

Mr. BARBER: This is an ugly case, a wrong case we believe an illegal case. And the NAACP and our friends, we had to challenge it because it is so endemic of what can happen when you leave local school boards alone in the South to do their business.

DEWITT: Barber calls the school board's actions discrimination. And he also uses another word: re-segregation.

Mr. RICK PRIDGEN (Chairman, Wayne County School Board): And I don't even know if that's a word in the dictionary, to be honest with you, re-segregation. It may be.

DEWITT: Rick Pridgen is the chair of the school board in Wayne County.

Mr. PRIDGEN: The schools have nothing to do with, and can't change, the demographics of the city. You know, the schools - has absolutely nothing to do with where people choose to live.

DEWITT: The civil rights divisions at the Departments of Education and Justice are coordinating a federal investigation. Civil rights advocates see Wayne County as a test case for the Obama administration's stated rededication to civil rights.

Mark Dorosin is a senior attorney with the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina.

Mr. MARK DOROSIN (Center for Civil Rights, University of North Carolina): The Wayne County case is particularly egregious. But it is also symbolic, or emblematic, of the trends we're seeing, not only across North Carolina but across the country.

DEWITT: Neither the Department of Justice nor the Department of Education would comment on the ongoing investigation in Wayne County. The local school board says it will cooperate fully with the investigation.

For NPR News, I'm Dave Dewitt in Durham, North Carolina.

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