At 17, Doug Williams has everything a high school senior could ever want: a fast car, a pretty girl, a letter sweater and enough friends to vote him Best Personality of Newton High School.

Come fall, he won't have to rise at 3:30 a.m. to milk the cows on his daddy's farm outside this hardscrabble town of 4,500 where most classmates aspire to an assembly-line job.

He's off to college at Mississippi State University. An affable young man also voted Most Intellectual and Most Likely to Succeed, he aims to be an engineer. So why does Williams, a scrappy ex-linebacker who helped the ferocious Tigers win a Choctaw Conference title last year, fret as he eyes graduation alongside 80 classmates? Why does he worry about tackling the Real World?

"We haven't had the best education available," says Williams, whose older sister struggled with college courses in spite of her standing as a National Merit Finalist from Newton High. "Any magazine you pick up, Newsweek, Time, Business Week--we get those down here--you see all the graphs that show Mississippi on the bottom.

"It makes you wonder how you can compete against college students from other states. I know they're not smarter, but they've probably had more courses than we have available. I'll just have to study harder and hope that will make the difference."

Doug Williams will be in the last class to graduate this spring before Gov. William Winter's historic education reforms take effect and attempt to reshape the way Mississippi teaches and students learn in the nation's poorest, least-educated state.

Consider one Mississippi statistic: 35 percent flunked the U.S. Army's standardized intelligence tests in 1981, compared to 9 percent nationwide.

The Mississippi story is in some ways a cautionary tale about what can happen when public education is neglected, ignored and given insufficient funds. But Mississippi is also inspiring. At a time when many states, in this era of economic uncertainty, are threatening to cut their school budgets (even in the face of dire predictions of the consequences for science, industry and defense), Mississippi has passed a revolutionary $106-million education bill. The bill, approved last December by legislators in special session and funded by the largest tax increase in state history, represents a giant step toward getting Mississippi "off the bottom," says Gov. Winter. His goal: to give workers enough skills to draw hesitant Sun Belt industry with high-tech jobs.

It also represents a dramatic about-face by a predominantly white legislature to do something for the heavily black public schools. "This is the first major expression of support for public education since desegregation," says Charles Overby, executive editor of the two Jackson dailies. "It's a turning point in Mississippi history."

Still, officials say it will take a generation to reverse an era of neglect that produced one of the highest high school dropout rates in the nation--and equip even top students like Williams with skills to compete and confidence to match.

DDD The schools of Newton represent neither the best nor the worst of Mississippi education. In facilities, curriculum and type of student, they are about the norm for the state. Only two out of five seniors at Newton are college bound. Two-thirds of the 1,200 students in grades 1-12 are black and poor, but many whites also come from impoverished circumstances. Two out of three students eat free or federally subsidized lunches. When snow shut down the school, students phoned to ask if meals would still be served.

Many covet jobs at Lazy Boy, the easy-chair maker here, the textile plant or the foundry. But seniors like Mike Bogan worry. "They don't offer nearly enough courses to prepare you to study subjects like engineering in college," he says.

Students do without calculus and computers. The roof leaks and desks are shoved against the walls when it rains. Football boosters just built a new field house, but about the only skeletons available for biology class are cow bones.

"When we study anatomy, we have to use our imagination," gripes Lou White, the silver-haired biology teacher. "These kids have the finest band equipment and the finest footballs, but we don't have a working microscope."

Yet Supt. Melvin Buckley, 43, has worked wonders with a tight budget. Test scores are up. Even so, "standard use of English is a big obstacle," he says. "We're Southerners and can communicate with each other. But some sucker comes down from New 'Joisey' amd he's a stranger in a foreign land."

Yet Newton High is light years ahead of many Mississippi public schools. It boasts a physics teacher and a flat football field. Lab burners work. Algebra, geometry, two chemistry classes and advanced biology are offered in an era of science and math teacher shortage nationwide.

When Buckley took over in 1976, social promotions were stopped. He convinced parents it was necessary to hold back 276 students.

"We were doing a dismal job," says Buckley. "You could actually identify a child's race by test scores. You can't any more."

That began to change after notes went out to black and white parents: "Your child isn't learning what he needs to be successful." Students were urged to take tougher courses, not simply get by. Buckley pitched farmers to keep children in school during harvests, but the school continues to suffer from an "epidimic" when deer season hits.

"What we wanted was a reasonable achievement for every child," he says. "Now students are scoring as if they were in the white upper and middle class socio-economic group. Teachers expect all students to achieve."

Career counseling was emphasized, testing goals set, teachers told to try anything that worked. The Tigers started winning football games. Attitudes began to change; school spirit soared. After years of school bond referendum defeats, the town voted a $500,000 bond issue to fix the roof.

Buckley threw out state curriculum-mandating subjects like Mississippi history, communism and agriculture. (Such requirements are expected to be overhauled by a new lay board of education under the new reforms.) The best teachers were dispatched to drill deficient students in reading and math.

"We broke the law," he confessed. It worked.

Nine out of 10 students held back rejoined their peer group after one year. While the average score on the California Achievement Test in 1976 stood at about the 30th percentile, 20 points below the national norm, Newton students were testing at 55th percentile (average) in 1982, the first year Mississippi students as a group statewide ever scored above the norm.

Under the reforms mandated in the Winter bill, such performance standards will be the basis for accrediting public schools. If a school doesn't measure up, it risks losing state funds, which provide 70 percent of budgets, and finances football as well--perhaps the biggest incentive for compliance.

"No school wants to give up football," says one state official.

The reforms also call for free statewide public kindergartens for the first time in Mississippi history; 10 percent pay hikes for teachers who rank among the lowest paid in the nation at an average of $14,000 a year, compared to $19,000 nationwide; reading aides in grades 1 through 3 starting next fall; an effective compulsory school attendance law and tougher teacher certification.

Buckley labels the reforms "fantastic." Students agree. "It's about time," says Lisa Hamm, 17.

While parents like Juanita Williams, Doug's mother, don't look forward to further tax increases to pay for the package, "anything will be a help," she says. "In 10-20 years, we'll have excellent schools."

Even those who can least afford to pay appear to favor the reforms. Pat Boulton, a divorced parent with two children at Newton and another on the way, doesn't even mind the legislature voting the regressive sales tax from 4 to 5 percent, making Mississippi's sales tax one of the highest in the nation.

"Our taxes are going to go up anyway, so it might as well be for a good cause," says Boulton, who survives on food stamps and child support. She attended an all- black school.

"There's no comparison between then and now," she says. "Back then, they didn't insist on you learning. You were just there. At Newton, they have strict rules about homework. Parents have to sign progress reports. That's good. I'm against social promotions."

DDD After integration rocked Mississippi a decade back, many whites in Newton kept children in public school and, unlike communities elsewhere, fought to make it work. White civic leaders regard the local all-white academy as inferior to Newton's public school.

"I wish I could say that whites are going back to public schools en masse," says Andy Mullins, the governor's legislative aide, "but they're not.

"There's still the idea that public schools have failed, that their child can't get an adequate education--and there's still a lot of racism. Some white parents believe that all our schools are bad when some compare favorably to any in the nation. But where whites have stuck it out and said, 'we're going to make it work, you've got the best schools.' "

Doug Williams is in one of the first classes to attend 12 grades at a fully integrated public school. He counts black friends like Bobby Lang. There is little racial tension at Newton. Yet Newton is just down the road from bloody Philadelphia where civil rights workers were slain two decades ago.

"We would have preferred to go on as it was (segregated), but I can't think of anything bad that has happened to my children from integration," says Chloie May, wife of the town's white optometrist who sent five children to Newton. "They got a good education. All have college degrees."

For years, black parents from across central Mississippi dispatched their children to attend the once all- black high school in town, now headquarters for several federal programs. "It was like a boarding school," recalls one graduate. "Students stayed with friends of parents or 'aunties' and went to school."

Then came orders to desegregate the schools, and E.L. Morgan, white superintendant for 33 years, carried them out. Robed Klansmen followed the school buses; Morgan was threatened. "A friend came back from one Klan meeting and told me, 'You might be hanging from a limb tomorrow.'

"I felt like whites would pick colored students up (academically), but for a while whites were pulled down."

But banker Jimmy Taylor, 34, a white parent with two children at Newton, has no complaints. "All the tension that existed has died down. (White) students have learned to cope a lot better than some parents.

"Our children have had black teachers and we've supported them. If they're going to grow up and be responsible adults, they need to learn to live and work together. It's working out real good."

DDD "You can't change what's happened over the last 20 years overnight," says Buckley, the sandy-haired educator who holds forth as comfortably about bird dogs as bell curves. "How do you get students to sign up for biology?"

Buckley dangles dollars and dreams. "You make them aware that the better they prepare themselves, the better they can compete, the more money they are going to make, the better lifestyle they will have. Now everyone wants to do better.

"We want to equip our children to be independent learners, not scholars," he says, "someone with the tools to survive or flourish in society as they find it 10-15 years down the road. We're ahead of the pack. We can pinpoint what we're learning and that's more important than counting desks, buildings or microscopes."

DDD Up the hill at Newton Elementary, first graders are divided into five sections based on skills. Progress is monitored closely, and students are shifted between sections as needed. Most studenn't evts held back in first grade had no pre-school.

Indeed, more than half Mississippi's 5-year-olds do not attend a pre-school program because parents cannot afford private kindergartens or do not qualify for federal programs such as Head Start. Until statewide public kindergartens open their doors in 1986 under the new legislation, Mississippi remains the only state without them.

Pencils in hand, Laverne Hardy's advanced first graders hunch over their papers, grappling with the blackboard problem: If 40 people are on the bus and 15 get off, how many are left?"

Next door, children sing "Glory, Glory hallelujah." Down the hall, Teresa Ann Fielder, 8, holds a book in triumph, a first grader in dirty jeans and pigtails. "One morning, three women came to the lot," she reads haltingly. "We can put a toy sto' here."

Last fall, she was among 21 first graders in Janet Risher's class who couldn't recite the alphabet, write their names or pick out colors on a chart. Risher had to spend two months just teaching vowel sounds.

"This was kindergarten," she says.

Next year under the legislation, first grade teachers like Risher get a reading aide, in effect, cutting class size in half. Most teachers fear the aides will be unqualified, hard to train, more trouble than they are worth.

Yet, in one school system in Lee County, where the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal funded a $1 million pilot reading-aide program for first graders, test scores on a nationwide reading achievement test soared from the 23rd percentile to the 59th.

Annette City can't wait until 1987, when all first graders will arrive with kindergarten degrees. "If I get a class where everyone recognizes the alphabet, I won't know what to do I'll be so excited," says the veteran first grade teacher.

In Mississippi, that day may come sooner than she thinks.