COMPTON — There is a "rock" house down the street, about a block from the elementary school. It is so close to the home of Lonnie and Calvina Sims that they can sit in their bedroom at night and hear the whistles from drivers pulling up to buy cocaine.
Not the best environment in which to raise a single child, let alone 13. But the Sims are doing just that, with a success rarely found in even the finest neighborhoods.
Each of their children, from 26-year-old Jon to 8-year-old Darrel, either has been or is being educated in the Compton Unified School District, which opens a new year of classes Tuesday. It is a public system that often generates headlines about administrative disputes, low-paid teachers and instructional problems discouraging enough to make even the most dedicated throw up their hands.
Yet the Sims children have dramatically excelled in the classroom without falling victim to those struggles or the deep-seated social ills that cause many of their peers to quit school or peddle dope or run with one of more than three dozen local gangs.
The temptation of drugs especially "is out there and it's all around," Calvina Sims noted last week. "And it's nothing but the grace of God that they haven't gotten involved in it."
Friends and teachers, however, also credit the parents.
"They are a strong family unit," said Eric Wright, pastor of the Gospel Light Fellowship Church, to which the Sims have belonged for 12 years. "They put a tremendous stress on academics and the whole family seems to help. When you get that kind of support from the family, it's kind of hard to fail."
Other kids might concentrate on playground basketball. The Sims children concentrate on playing the violin. Or the cello, or the flute, or the clarinet, or the trumpet. Every Christmas, one of them inevitably secures a spot in a county youth symphony that appears on television.
Around the house, homework comes first, bringing with it a devotion to study and a sense of discipline that has threaded its way through the family character. Every fall, the father sets down rules for the school year, like no nighttime television before 7:30 or after 9:30. A daily list of bathroom cleaning responsibilities--16-year-old Jacquelyn one day, 14-year-old Sandra the next, and so on--is tacked like a duty roster on the side of the refrigerator.
Son Calvin, 22, isn't even the smartest, his mother said. But through single-minded perseverance, he won more than a half-dozen scholarships, graduated from Yale and last year joined The New York Times as a science and business reporter.
"They were the motivating factor in large part, mainly in the way they approach life in general," the reporter said of his parents. "They looked for avenues that would sort of bring out the best qualities we have and would keep us from falling into the traps that some people fall into."
Scholarships and similar honors have been regularly bestowed upon the other Sims children as well. Last week 18-year-old Lisa picked up the Compton Superintendent's Blue Ribbon for her high school work. This fall she will study chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, where brother Jon already studies music and directs the celebrated Black Student Union Gospel Choir. He also played violin a few times on the television series "Fame."
Follow Homemaker Role
Peter, 19, is a biology major at UC Santa Barbara. Secrette, 25, and Karene, 20, each finished a year of junior college before settling into married life, like their homemaker mother.
Clifford, 17 and a senior at Compton High, is not only a solid student but also a solid athlete. (Who says you can't play violin and basketball?) Meanwhile, Jacquelyn, a Compton High junior, and Sandra, a sophomore, attend special classes for the gifted.
Jami, 13, and Marc, 11, go to Enterprise Junior High, while 10-year-old James, a budding skateboard wiz, attends nearby Tibby Elementary with Darrel.
"It seemed like every time I was in a room, I had one of the (Sims) kids," said Vivian Waples, who taught at Tibby 28 years before recently retiring. "The children are above average, but I wouldn't call them geniuses. It was just that every time an opportunity was offered to them, they were there, which you just don't see in kids today."
Life Centers on Children
Waples had special praise for the mother.
"She centers her whole life around those kids. She worked with me and did a lot of little extra activities. . . . and she didn't have to. She just did it."
"The children's material things came before the father and mother," Waples observed. "I kind of think they neglected themselves so their kids would have."
Calvina Sims, 44, admits as much, but isn't sorry for the sacrifice.
"We provided things to keep them busy"--bicycles, swing sets, educational games--"so rather than them going over to someone else's house (to play), other kids would come over to our house."