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An Extended Family for Black Students

Test scores have risen and dropout rates fallen since an L.A. high school started the Village.

July 06, 2006|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

When Kandi Boyd was called into a school assembly last year at Cleveland High School, she had no idea she was stepping into an innovative learning program based on the old-fashioned notion that personal attention can make a difference between success and failure in school.

What Boyd encountered was an auditorium full of African American students, faculty and staff behaving like a family, talking about race and cultural attitudes, upbraiding one another when needed but also expressing care and respect.

The program, named the Village, was created three years ago by African American faculty at Cleveland High, in Reseda, amid some controversy, because it is aimed only at black students. It focuses on forging personal connections with students in a communal setting that epitomizes the African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child."

The results in student achievement that have followed have won national plaudits and are drawing interest from school districts in San Diego and San Francisco, and as far away as Little Rock, Ark. The program was recently adopted at Chatsworth High School, and the Los Angeles Unified School District wants to expand it districtwide. The teachers who created the program, meanwhile, are working this summer to find more resources to support their effort, which as it expands will be called the Village Nation.

"What's different is that students see they have someone to go to for help besides your classroom teachers," Boyd, 16, said recently as she prepared for finals. The staff, called the Village Elders, "really wanted to teach us stuff and had outside speakers come in who we could relate to. The message was that everyone has potential."

The keys to the program are tied to the teachers' abilities to establish a level of trust and rapport with the students, relate to their cultural traditions and convey expectations of high academic achievement.

"There's an engagement that goes on," said Village co-founder Fluke Fluker. "Too many of them are in a place, whether at home or in school, where they're not being heard."

During the school day, black students gather with teachers in meetings that are often laced with frank discussions about such topics as race, culture, relationships and negative media stereotypes of African Americans. About 315 African Americans attend the 4,200-student Cleveland High. Participation in the Village is not mandatory, but most black students attend. White, Latino and Asian students are not invited.

Critics -- including some parents and teachers -- have called the approach divisive and stigmatizing. They also say it fuels segregation on campuses that are often already racially inflamed. When Pasadena High School recently tried to replicate a Village assembly, some students and parents were caught off guard and complained that African Americans were being unfairly reprimanded for the same issues that confront other racial groups.

Those views, however, have been tempered by impressive gains in test scores, reductions in dropout rates and improved behavior among Cleveland's African American students. Scores on the Academic Performance Index jumped 95 points in two years, from 569 in 2003 to 664 in 2005, according to the California Department of Education. The districtwide average among all students in 2005 was 649, department statistics show.

In 2003, 36% of black students at Cleveland passed the math portion of the California High School Exit Examination. The figure rose to 81% in 2006.

Although Cleveland has shown gains throughout its student body in recent years, those by African American students have been greater than in other groups. Educators at Cleveland, backed by district officials, said they believe that the Village played a large role in those gains.

Fueled by these achievements, Cleveland was recognized in 2005 as a California Distinguished School, the first comprehensive high school in L.A. Unified to receive the award.

"The statistics are compelling and overwhelming any way you look at it, and you won't find gains like these anywhere in the country," said Bob Collins, the district's chief instructional officer for secondary education. "I'm aware there were some who complained and had been concerned, but I think they've proved the critics wrong."

The Village is the brainchild of life-skills teacher and coach Fluker, social studies teacher William Paden and school dean Andre Chevalier. They realized that the uninterested, low-achieving students they knew at school were actually lively and intellectually curious youths when the teachers encountered them off campus.

The educators were also angry and frustrated at test scores that perpetually showed black youths doing worse than other groups, often scoring below immigrant children with limited English skills. They held a meeting with other black faculty and staff to brainstorm strategies and then got the OK from then-Principal Al Weiner to hold an assembly.

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