At first glance, the open enrollment policy being proposed for Salt Lake City School District seems like a headlong retreat from the victory won just months ago for equity at the district's three high schools.

That proposed equality in numbers, academics, and minority enrollment was hammered out in a bitter redrawing of school boundaries. It was a change fought vigorously by many families whose emotional links are to East High and whose children would be sent to West High under the new arrangement.The new boundaries would take effect for the first time next fall, so the proposal to "phase in" open enrollment in the 1989-90 school year, and have it apply to all high school students in 1990-91, seems to come before the equity plan will have much chance to work.

Yet Supt. John Bennion believes some kind of compromise is necessary to heal the rift in the community caused by the boundary dispute. By letting the new boundaries be in effect for two years, then opening the door to open enrollment, he thinks he has found middle ground.

Bennion has critics on both sides. Those who want the new boundaries to be undisturbed for a lengthy period in order to build up new patterns of attendance, and those who want immediate open enrollment, are both worried about the proposal.

Bennion is the first to admit there is some risk involved in such a short timetable between new boundaries and open enrollment.

If families send their children to West High - and in the process destroy some old stereotypes about the school - and those children are doing well and are happy, they might not want to be uprooted again.

Thus the central question becomes whether students from the Avenues and other areas traditionally assigned to East High will be happy at West. There are some indications they will be.

For example, the district's ELP program - a program housed at West for gifted 7th and 8th graders from all over the Salt Lake City District - shows that most students who complete the course choose to continue as high school students at West, rather than return to their neighborhoods, an option given to ELP students. This was not the experience of ELP when it was housed at South High before being moved to West.

In addition, the International Baccalaureate program, a program beyond college-level Advanced Placement classes, is being offered only at West High for gifted high school students. It is drawing many inquiries from outside the Salt Lake City District from parents who would like their exceptional youngsters to have the opportunity.

All of this indicates that West might not suffer from open enrollment after the boundary changes have had a two-year chance to work; but there are no guarantees. At the same time, open enrollment would give parents - starting in 1990 - a choice over where their children will go to high school.

Bennion is trying hard to satisfy both the demands of equity and the demand for open enrollment - maybe too hard. The plan may heal the emotional division in the district, but if it does so at the price of equity, the cost will be too high.

Once open enrollment is allowed, the district should keep a close watch on what happens to school populations and academic achievement at the three high schools. Officials must make sure that things don't fall back into old patterns. Otherwise, this whole boundary battle will have been an exercise in futility.