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School Reunion Seen as Way to Renew Community Spirit : Alumni Hope the Past Will Enliven the Present

October 31, 1985|KEVIN L. CARTER | Times Staff Writer

Do you remember elementary school?

Do you remember being 10 minutes late, and then making yourself 10 minutes later by pausing to think up an elaborate alibi? Do you remember the class clown's hilarious antics behind the teacher's back? And the look on his face when the teacher, with eyes in the back of her head, made the poor kid stay after school?

Such were the memories last Saturday when about 400 people gathered at Avalon Gardens Elementary School, across the Harbor Freeway from Gardena, to remember their school, those who taught there, those who attended, and the experiences they shared.

They also gathered on the Avalon playground to honor a woman who, in their minds, represented everything good about education in America.

Birdielee Bright, principal at Avalon Gardens from 1954 to 1968, had no children of her own, but to many of her former students she was a mother figure.

"She was a very strong principal who protected the children from the time they left the house to the time they came back," said Raymond (Papa) Hughes, one of the organizers of the reunion. "Her influence was such that it was with them even when they were not in the school building."

It was apparent Saturday that Bright's influence is still felt as her former students--whom she called "my boys and girls" even though some are in their 40s--lined up to kiss her, hug her or get her autograph.

"I may not be your parent," she told the group, "but I am proud of every one of you."

Many lawyers, businessmen, teachers and professional athletes have graduated from Avalon Gardens. Some alumni credited their success in part to Bright's iron-hand method of running the school.

"From the foundation I got from her I was able to compete in all areas of life from then on," said Wayne Collett, a silver medalist in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1972 Olympics and now a Los Angeles attorney.

Bright expressed particular satisfaction at seeing that many of her former students had become teachers. One of them, Desdra Butler, a fifth-grade teacher in Los Angeles, said it was Bright's influence that led her to choose the profession.

"It was rough when I was a student, but now I love her," Butler said. "I'd say I'm a Miss Bright type of teacher. I'm definitely hard-core."

One of the reasons the reunion was held, organizers said, was to bring back some of the community spirit that was prevalent in Avalon Gardens during Bright's tenure. This small, tightly knit, middle-class black community has changed in the past few years, as children grew up and moved out of the area to start their own families. The elementary school, one of the focal points of community life, declined in enrollment because there were fewer families with children, and some residents became concerned, Hughes and others said.

Although the quality of education for Avalon Gardens' approximately 200 students apparently has not diminished--Principal Tyler Hayes said that the school ranks among the highest in standardized test scores in the Los Angeles Unified School District--its central role in community life needed reinforcement, many said.

As alumni relived old memories with photographs, home movies, and music that ranged from early Temptations to the Jackson Five to Stevie Wonder to the New Edition, it became apparent that the reunion would help renew that community feeling.

Although the event was scheduled to end at 4 p.m., the gathering continued as some alumni moved to a house adjacent to the school grounds. As late as 8 p.m., cars still crowded an entire block of San Pedro Street adjacent to the school building.

According to organizing committee member Gentry Akens, a West Covina businessman and Avalon Gardens alumnus who still maintains strong ties to his boyhood community, the reunion served its purposes admirably.

"It was extremely successful, and everyone wants to do something again soon," Akens said. He said that community members will try to push the school board for a new paint job and other cosmetic improvements for the building.

And did Birdielee Bright, the mother-away-from-home for so many for so long, enjoy the reunion?

As she was named homecoming queen by the alumni, she struggled to hold back tears. "Today I have been rewarded," she said. "The challenge was great but I have been rewarded."

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