CERRITOS — When Jerome Polite moved from Carson to Cerritos six years ago, he was attracted by the nice houses and by the school system, which had a good reputation.
He also knew that he was moving to one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the nation.
But it took a while for him to realize that while ethnic diversity means that his daughter is exposed to people of many backgrounds, it also means that she is cut off from contact with other black children and with adult black role models.
"Our kids live in a multicultural society but are not used to being around black kids," Polite said recently, adding that his 14-year-old daughter, Lealyn, averages one other black student in her classes and has had no more than two black teachers since she has been in Cerritos.
Enter the Cerritos Saturday Academy, a parent-operated project meant to preserve the self-esteem of black youth in Cerritos and neighboring areas while also supplementing their educations.
"Here (at the academy) there is a real feeling of family and an excellent (exchange of) ideas and curriculum," said Polite, a data-processing manager who is a parent-volunteer in the program.
About 60 children ages 9-18 meet Saturday mornings for a few hours of learning in language arts, math/science and black history.
Instructors include educators, businessmen and women and parents who volunteer their time. The only cost to students is a $60 enrollment fee that pays for materials and supplies for a six-week session.
Parents Required to Help
Parents are required to spend three hours per session at the academy, either assisting in the classrooms or attending workshops with such titles as "Help Your Child Avoid Substance Abuse," "How to Address the School District" and "How to Get Along With Your Children."
Parents said the instructors serve as role models, showing black adults in varied professions. The contact with adults and social interaction among students are keys to enhancing self-esteem among the youth. So is the class in black culture.
Mary Taylor, chairwoman of Cerritos Saturday Academy, said: "We felt there was a need for this, because many black children know very little about their culture except for what they have learned about slavery or what they are seeing on television about gangs.
"Many parents noted identity problems in their children, and that is part of the reason we are emphasizing black culture."
Last year a study released by the Assn. of American Geographers found that Cerritos leads the nation as a racial melting pot.
Other Classes Offered Ethnics
The racial composition of the students in the ABC Unified School District, according to a December report, is 28% Latino, 31.7% white, 26% Asian, 6.4% black, 5.3% Filipino, 2% Portuguese, 0.3% American Indian and 0.2% Pacific Islander.
Korean, Chinese and Japanese classes similar to the Saturday Academy for black students have been offered for years in the school district by parental groups working with the system, according to a school official.
This is the first time that black parents in the district have adopted a supplemental educational program.
The idea was raised in June when Dr. Helen Fried, director of instructional services for the district, invited black parents to a meeting to hear Dr. Rick Turner, a former director of UC Irvine's tutorial services, explain how he had set up a Saturday Academy at UCI.
Inspired by Turner's address, parents decided to meet weekly to organize and develop a curriculum.
In October, they started the first six-week session of classes, meeting in Gahr High School. The second session started in January.
On any given Saturday, a visitor can now walk into any of the six classrooms and see the work of learning and self-esteem building in progress.
In the science class one day recently, nearly 20 fourth- and fifth-graders were busy at two tables conducting experiments to test the acidity of common household items.
"Did everybody get a reaction?" asked instructor Karen Gordon, 23, who graduated from UCLA in December with a degree in psychology.
One child shook his head no.
"What is that foam-looking stuff?" she said, pointing to the vial he was holding. "That's a reaction."
The students were having a reaction too--a positive one, judging from the comments of two of them.
"I like this class. We do a lot of exciting experiments," 10-year-old Staci Curry of Compton said. "At first I thought we were going to be doing a lot of hard work, but it is fun. It's like being in a camp."
Joseph Lenon, 10, from Norwalk, likes attending the Saturday Academy "because we learn stuff that they don't teach us in school."
Dr. Diane Hambrick, medical program director at the chemical dependency unit at Santa Ana Hospital and co-chairwoman of the Saturday Academy, also described the program as "the kind of experience they are not going to get in school."