When Angela Freeman moved to Pennsauken in the mid-1980s, she was among a wave of black teachers hired to reflect the township's changing racial demographics.

The idea was that African American educators could better relate to the small but growing number of black students at the high school. Freeman felt welcome enough, but she noticed that any discussion of race was conducted in code, with teachers and administrators avoiding words like black and white.

It was always "the school is changing," Freeman said. "One day I said, 'What do you mean?' and there was silence. But I knew what they meant."

These days, the Camden County inner-ring suburb - where minorities, including significant numbers of Latinos and Asians, are now half of the population - is engaged in a public discussion about the role of race in its future.

The issue is how to stanch the outflow of the town's white residents while creating a welcoming environment for everyone.

Fifteen years ago, residents began an effort to try to stem the "white flight" that had afflicted many U.S. cities in the 1960s and '70s and was threatening Pennsauken. The strategy, as refined over the years: Market the town's diversity as an asset.

Tours led by the township for prospective residents emphasize Pennsauken's multiculturalism, and new-resident meetings encourage interaction across racial and class lines.

Some call Pennsauken's forthright approach a refreshing change from the suburban norm.

"The town has developed a reputation for openness," Freeman said. "People find it much more accepting. It's easier to move into a community and see yourself."

In 1980, white residents accounted for 91 percent of Pennsauken's population. By 2000, 60 percent of the town's 36,000 residents were white. In those 20 years, there had been a doubling of minority residents, drawn by the same relatively low property taxes and proximity to Philadelphia that had attracted families for decades.

In 1994, at the height of the white exodus - and the year the township elected its first black councilman - local residents Lynn Cummings and Harold Adams created the grassroots group Neighbors Empowering Pennsauken (NEP) to improve relations between established residents and the minority families moving in.

In 2001, the township created a commission on integration, phased out NEP, and committed public money to billboards and other efforts designed to market Pennsauken's diversity to white families looking for an alternative to more homogenous suburbs.

"People were asking why I, a black man, wanted more white people living here. It wasn't an easy sell," said Adams, 50, a real estate assessor. "We were coming at it from a practical standpoint."

According to studies, he said, the market value of homes tends to decline as more minorities move into a neighborhood. That translates into lower revenue from property taxes.

"When a town gets below 50 percent white, it makes it very difficult for the town to maintain services," Adams said.

That spiraling down is mostly the result of paranoia, says Nathaniel Norment Jr., chairman of the African American Studies department at Temple University.

"It's something that's created based on white people's fear of being close to black people," Norment said. "There's this myth we have that blacks' moving in will change the social environment."

Not everyone in Pennsauken has supported the focus on maintaining the community's white population.

"Some people of color had feelings that if whites wanted to leave and not live next to people of color, you should let them do as they want to do," said resident Darlene Hannah-Collins, 53, who is black.

But Pennsauken has received no shortage of publicity. Most recently, Adams, Cummings, and some of their neighbors were featured on the PBS documentary The New Metropolis, which looked at the issues of "first-ring" suburbs, those closest to urban centers, through the experiences of Pennsauken and two towns in southern Ohio.

The question hanging over the town is whether the steps it has taken have slowed the departure of the nonminority population.

According to a 2008 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, the township's white population has declined by 22 percent since 2000. The census conducted this year will be more definitive.

Eric Dobson, a planning consultant who has done work for the township and sits on the school board, said the preliminary census numbers indicated what he already knew.

On the computer screen in his office, he scrolled through mortgage data and property values, neighborhood by neighborhood, and saw a continuation of trends he first noticed in the 1990s.

"When you see the low property values, you can figure people of color are living there," Dobson said. "It's troubling when you have an overwhelming number of one particular race buying in a place. That's the sign of moving toward segregation."

At Pennsauken High School, white students now make up 17 percent of the enrollment. The disparity between the school's racial makeup and that of the town is partly a reflection of Pennsauken's white population being older.

But another reason is that many white families send their children to private school, say teachers and students.

"The school has this bad reputation, but it's not right," said Lorresiki Collado, a 17-year-old senior whose family is from the Dominican Republic. "We beat the Catholic schools up in the math competition, but some of the students here don't work, so our test scores are low."

Fifty-six percent of Pennsauken High students failed to meet basic proficiency standards in math last year and 34 percent failed to do so in English - 5 and 7 percentage points below the state averages. School officials attributed the scores to the influx of students who had not passed through Pennsauken's elementary and middle school programs.

For those involved in the integration effort, there is a consensus that however many white families have departed, more would have left had nothing been done.

Among them is Mayor Rick Taylor, the first black man elected to the township council.

"Any time a town changes complexion, there's always people that are going to say that it's going to hell in a handbasket. But we fought that. We had some Realtors running the old fear game, and we put them on notice," Taylor said.

"We might not be progressing as much as we need to, but we're not sinking. That's something."

On a recent weekday morning, Cummings toured Pennsauken in her Subaru station wagon, pointing out neighborhood after neighborhood of modest but well-kept homes and the industrial parks that provide the township much of its tax base.

Two nights earlier, Cummings, a professional fund-raiser, had given a speech with Adams at a symposium in North Philadelphia on gentrification. Cummings, who is white, told of how she helped form Neighbors Empowering Pennsauken after watching for-sale signs go up in front of white-owned homes as blacks moved into her neighborhood in the mid-1990s.

Driving around town, Cummings explained that she and her husband are the adoptive parents of three: Kathleen and Keith, who are white, and Krysten, who is biracial.

Krysten, an actress who now lives in London, was one of a handful of minority children in Pennsauken in the 1980s. Mostly, life was peaceful. But Cummings recalls when her daughter's kindergarten classmates threw rocks at her, and when neighbors called police when they saw Krysten, then a teenager, hanging out with friends outside her home.

"All we ever wanted was a harmonious town," Cummings said. "I think we've been successful, but it's never done. It's continually being brought to another level of consciousness."

Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.