The Alexandria School Board decided last night to keep open Barrett Elementary School, which faces a dramatic enrollment decline in September due to housing renovations in the low-income Arlandria area.

The decision, which was made without a formal vote, is the first indication of how demographic changes in the city are affecting the public schools and that the board has not yet figured out how to deal with it.

"It isn't perfect, but I think at least it's the least disruptive," said Superintendent Robert W. Peebles. ". . . It's too late in the year to adjust boundaries. What would cause problems is a kind of panic reaction and for parents to get worried about an empty school."

School officials said that Barrett's enrollment may drop from the current 274 students to 97 because of apartment renovations on four nearby streets.

Barrett parents were pleased with the decision. "It worries us "It isn't perfect . . . ."

-- Superintendent Robert W. Peebles

that the whole thing could be shuffled," said PTA President Jeanne Snapp.

In the last several months, white parents at Barrett have lobbied the board to turn the school into a magnet program offering a traditional, back-to-basics approach or intense foreign language study.

Their goal was to make sure that the school could attract enough students from outside its normal boundaries to forestall a cut in staffing or classroom disruption if enrollment should drop significantly.

A majority of the board has rejected the magnet idea, with some members arguing that such a program would detract from the Drew Model School, which is having trouble attracting white students.

Board members also said they did not favor a boundary change because it is likely that some of the minority students who were transferred from Cora Kelly to make room for more white students would be moved a second time.

"We don't want to make them pawns," said board member Gene C. Lange. "Children need a degree of stability."