LITTLE ROCK, ARK. -- When Paul Masem took over this school system in 1978, he hired its first black football coach and its first black associate superintendent, and told teachers in a staff meeting, "If you can't teach blacks then you don't have a job."

Four years later, by the end of a tumultuous tenure, he was the target of a scornful white establishment and a bickering school board divided over his integration plans, according to former school board members and community activists.

"Dr. Masem was willing to be a martyr for trying to gain equality in education, and that cost him his job," said the Rev. William Robinson of the Christian Ministerial Alliance, a group of black congregations that supported Masem.

This week, the man who even critics say was an uncompromising crusader in Little Rock takes over the $83,000-a-year stewardship of Alexandria's 9,600-student school system. The school board's unanimous choice, he succeeds Robert W. Peebles, who retired for health reasons after seven years in the post.

"Part of the attraction of Alexandria," Masem said in an interview, "is it is a very manageable system in terms of its size, and it has the resources, and a board and community sensitive to a lot of issues that go into making a minority-majority system work. It is a microcosm of many of the other larger systems that have the same kind of problems.

"Even though we're not dealing with desegregation," he said in reference to his own expertise, "we're dealing with making desegregation work."

Masem, 48, comes to Alexandria after five years as superintendent in Ames, Iowa. An anomaly to his urban school experiences, Ames proved to be a respite from a career path that had led him into the morass of problems facing school systems in Columbia, S.C. -- where he set up a desegregation training center for school staff members -- in Chicago and in Providence, R.I.

In 1977, he was hired by Montgomery County's then-Superintendent Charles M. Bernardo, for whom Masem had worked in Providence. He headed a department that included special education and other alternative programs. The position, he said, was his jumping-off point into a high-profile career.

The time in Ames, a small, predominantly white university town, allowed him to be "an educator" superintendent, he said.

He concentrated on developing and testing instructional programs, which included individualizing instruction through increased monitoring and testing of student performance.

He also helped turn around the district's poor financial state by promoting a local tax increase for schools and by closing a junior high school, the most controversial issue he faced.

In his new post, he will lead this area's most diverse school system. Although Alexandria has a predominantly affluent, well-educated white population, its school system, like those in many urban areas, has a declining number of white students and an increasing number of minority students, many of whom are from disadvantaged homes.

As of June 1987, 46 percent of the students were black, 36.6 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic and 7.5 percent Asian.

Alexandria's school officials are sensitive about test scores and other academic indicators, they have said, in part because they are competing with nearby private schools for white students to maintain the racial mix for which the district has been noted.

Masem inherits nascent efforts, developed at Peebles' direction, to bridge the academic gap in Alexandria between black and white students and to solicit more involvement by black parents, an area where Peebles made modest gains.

Masem's diplomacy is likely to be held up to standards set by Peebles, a congenial and accessible leader who won the community's commitment to the schools. Masem's diplomacy also will be tested early as the School Board and City Council are expected to spar over next year's budget, which the council must approve, and over Peebles' promise to give teachers an 8 percent pay increase in each of the next two years.

Masem, who met last week with school staff members, said he has proposed that a joint city-school committee be established to discuss the budget before the board is "in the position of doing battle" in public meetings. He seeks the board's interpretation of Peebles' commitment to teacher raises before taking a position on it, he said.

Masem already has begun to study ways to better adapt the schools to the large foreign-born population. This month, he asked the staff for detailed information on each of the foreign-born students who failed the state's basic skills test.

Masem said his interest in desegregation and minority achievement grew out of his teaching experience in a segregated white school in Columbia, and then in a predominantly black township of Chicago, where a black educator became his mentor on race relations.

In Little Rock, Masem tested the commitment of the influential white liberal establishment that had elected a desegregation-minded school board. But 30 years after President Eisenhower deployed federal troops to protect nine black children trying to attend the all-white Central High School, it was Masem's unwavering commitment to desegregation that ultimately was his undoing, said school board members and activists.

"I think if the superintendent had been the good Lord himself, he would have been asked to leave," said former Little Rock board member Peter Sherrill, who voted to cut Masem's contract.

"Paul is not the smoothest man in the world, but he's not the most abrasive, either . . . . Maybe he pushed a little too hard, but unless you push hard, some of these people won't move."

Masem's arguments for concentrating on black achievement and for integrating the school system's staff went beyond racial principles. He said he perceived a threat to the competitiveness of the country.

"If minority achievement {is not improved}, our ability to compete will come to a grinding halt," he said.

His method for achieving those ends, said his supporters and detractors, was controversial, as was his style, which some said was cocky and aloof.

"He's a bright, streetwise . . . noneducator manager," said Herb Rule, former member of the Little Rock school board.

To tackle Little Rock's problems, Masem drew up a demanding teacher and administrator evaluation system. He increased the number of minority staff and transferred or removed many ineffective teachers, a task the school board had requested him to carry out.

According to a poll published in a local newspaper, Masem earned low ratings among teachers in morale and rapport.

Masem also created a uniform, district-wide reading program. He lobbied and won board approval for a higher grade-point requirement for athletes. During his tenure, the standardized test scores of black and white students rose.

To the ire of some white parents, Masem opened up the gifted and talented program to black children by changing the entry qualifications. It went from 5 percent black enrollment to 50 percent. "It was one of the things that created a warp in people's mind, that here was a white person who was pugnaciously going to express and implement a concern that black people had," Rule said.

Masem also developed a magnet school plan and then a plan to consolidate Little Rock's district with two adjoining, predominantly white districts. His school board eventually won a lawsuit against the two districts, forcing consolidation as a remedy to the de facto resegregation of schools. The plan was overturned on appeal.

Masem reached out to the black community and solicited its help in turning the schools around. He courted black business groups and the black clergy and developed an alternative to the PTA, which he said alienated many blacks with its emphasis on parliamentary procedure.

"He made his administration go out and get folks," recalled Everett M. Hawks, principal at Central High School, whose student body is now about 60 percent black.

By Masem's third year, with a membership change on the board, the issue of white flight had taken center stage. At one point, Masem testified in court against a board plan to limit black enrollment at any given school to 65 percent and then to group the remaining black students, which would have been about 2,000 students, in all-black schools.

In 1981, the board voted 4 to 3 to cut his contract by one year.

Analyzing those events in the closing chapter of his 1986 PhD dissertation on Little Rock's desegregation history, Masem wrote, "I was appalled by what was my lack of knowledge of the history of the Little Rock School District. My failure to 'know' my school district and my community caused me to make numerous political errors when such errors could little be afforded."

He said last week that his ouster was a source of great personal pain.

"It was a feeling of unfinished business . . . like a car accident, when you reflect back in your mind repeatedly on what you could have done to avoid it," he said.

Masem says that Ames was not his first choice as a next step, but he said it gave him time to develop "more skills in boardsmanship."

Ames' only high school is nothing like the imposing five-story brick memorial to racial struggles that is Little Rock's Central High School.

It is a one-story, ranch-style building whose main office is painted bright yellow and adorned by an old-fashioned grandfather clock.

But Masem's associates there were struck by the some of the same traits that elicit praise from his Little Rock constituents.

"He has definite ideas about how things should be done," said William C. Ripp, Ames' High School's associate principal.