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The State | COLUMN ONE

A School's Glaring Absence

They're fatherless, angry and tempted by the street. One man who knows their struggle firsthand is trying to make a difference.

July 01, 2006|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Inside an Audubon Middle School office decorated with posters of Frederick Douglass, Bill Cosby and Booker T. Washington, Kevin Dailey surveys a list of student detentions.

"There he is again," the dean sighs on this April afternoon, marking a star by the name Tyree Francis.

This is Tyree's second detention of the day. Notes from a teacher say he is "repeatedly tardy and refuses to cooperate." The husky eighth-grader, cuffed black jeans dragging on the floor, chats with other students in the office, seemingly oblivious.

The dean stands up. "Can you close your mouths!" he shouts. He glares at Tyree. "You, who seem to be here every day."

"I didn't do nothing!" Tyree says, tossing his hands up.

For months now, Tyree's single mother has tried to get her 13-year-old son to behave. He's failing and skipping classes. He's defiant toward teachers and sometimes toward her.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 04, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Fatherless boys: An article in Saturday's Section A about a school with many children who do not have fathers at home said 13-year-old Devin Brown was killed in February 2005 when he was shot 10 times by an LAPD officer. The officer fired 10 shots; seven of them struck Brown.

Torrence Brannon-Reese, who runs a campus program for fatherless boys called See a Man, Be a Man, has talked to Tyree many times. He mentors boys and shares his experiences of growing up without a father. Tyree showed up often at the meetings back in seventh grade. Reese took him swimming or on field trips, bought him hot chocolate and gave him Dodger tickets.

These days, Tyree says he would rather race mini-motorcycles, known as pocket bikes, than follow rules under Reese's watchful eye. Lately, his defiance has turned toward Reese too. Tyree's life mirrors that of many Audubon students: He is a child of a low-income, working mother and knows nothing of his father, not even his name.

By Reese's count, 80% of Audubon students do not have fathers at home. He may be exaggerating, but a Times analysis shows that Audubon serves an area with the second-highest percentage of students without fathers among the Los Angeles Unified School District's 78 middle schools. Of households with children under 18 within Audubon's attendance boundaries, 46% are headed by a single mother.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Audubon is among the lowest performing schools in the state, in the bottom 10% on the state academic performance index.

At Audubon, Dailey spends much of his time listening to pleas from desperate mothers who tell him: "I just need help." He says 99.9% of the parents he deals with are mothers or grandmothers.

"You think we can have a father-and-son event at this school?" Dailey says. "Nobody would come."

The bell rings in the dean's office, and school lets out. Tyree darts outside and joins a crowd of students. They are watching as two girls are wheeled into an ambulance. Spectators say school staff caught the girls stumbling drunk.

Tyree lingers.

He should be on his way to See a Man, Be a Man, like he told his mother he would.

In back of the campus, Reese is gathering a group of boys for a trip to Leimert Park.

Tyree does not show up.

*

Later, inside a dim Leimert Park theater where Reese has led them, 10 boys fidget. One student's father has been in prison since the boy was a baby. Another student's brother was killed two years ago.

"My goal in life," says one 11-year-old, "is to be a football player, a basketball player or a break-dancer."

Sitting in back of the room wearing a "Harlem" baseball cap, with arms crossed like a case-hardened judge, Reese shakes his head. He wishes these boys dreamed beyond becoming sports stars or rappers.

Reese, 45, grew up in New Orleans, where his mother owned a nightclub. As a child, his role models were pimps, hustlers and drug dealers. But Reese found himself more fascinated with books like "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and "Manchild in the Promised Land" by Claude Brown. He chose to look up to those male characters instead.

"Stop looking at all that bling, bling," Reese tells them. It's more likely they won't "have any chance to be a professional athlete."

"Aw," one boy moans, "how you gonna say that?"

Regardless of athletic talent, Reese explains, they need a backup plan.

"I want to be a lawyer," says the boy whose brother was slain.

Reese asks him: "What is a challenge, today, you are trying to overcome?"

"Gangbanging," the boy replies.

*

In 1997, the city of Los Angeles launched the L.A. Bridges after-school program to deter students from joining gangs by offering sports, tutoring, field trips and anger-management classes. L.A. Bridges serves more than 4,000 students a year at 27 middle schools.

Reese, a former community counselor, was hired under contract by the city in 2000 to run Bridges at Audubon. He developed See a Man, Be a Man after working with angry boys whose fathers were missing and whose mothers were trying to discipline their children alone.

It is designed to teach young men responsibility, cleanliness, and the relevance of education and caring for women and families. He invites doctors, lawyers, businessmen and pastors to mentor the boys.

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