She telephoned me in desperation, pitching a story about the Compton middle school students her group had taken to the Century City office of the investment firm Bear Stearns, to learn about money management and careers in finance.
"We're trying to teach them about portfolios and they can't even spell the word, never heard of it!" Veronica Coffield told me in a voice shot through with urgency. "They're still learning 'less than' and 'greater than' in eighth grade, and they're supposed to make it through high school?"
To be honest, I took Coffield's call mainly because I'm a fan of Chaka Khan, the Grammy-winning singer. Her education foundation had sponsored the trip through its "Going to College" program for students at Drew Middle School.
I stayed on the line because I had no chance to interrupt Coffield's rapid-fire monologue. "We've got eighth-graders with an A in algebra who can't tell me what six-times-five is equal to!" she said. "Seventh-graders who don't know the difference between a noun and a verb!"
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 15, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Banks column: Sandy Banks' column in Sunday's California section referred to students attending Drew Middle School as "Compton middle school students." Many of the Drew students reside in Compton. Drew Middle School, however, is in unincorporated Los Angeles County and is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 19, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Banks column: Sandy Banks' column in the July 12 California section referred to students attending Drew Middle School as "Compton middle school students." The school is in unincorporated Los Angeles County and is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, though many students live in Compton.
I hung up oddly encouraged by our talk. How refreshing it was that Coffield had the nerve to be outraged over the ordinary failures of inner-city schools.
As a child, Chaka Khan wasn't much of a student. She dropped out of high school in Chicago to chase her dream of a career in music. "But I knew where the library was," she said. "And I knew how to get a book."
Three years ago, her foundation culled 50 Drew students from the ranks of low-achievers and began taking them on monthly excursions. The preteens learned about the justice system in the television courtroom of Judge Judy, about health and fitness in Tae Bo classes with Billy Blanks, about culinary careers at restaurants in Malibu and Beverly Hills.
Khan wanted to ignite their fantasies, and figured their school would do the rest. But her conversations with the children provided a reality check.
They described math classes crammed with unruly students, some of whom could barely add and subtract; an English class with no permanent teacher but a succession of unprepared subs; teachers who ridiculed wrong answers in class and swore at students in the halls.
But it wasn't as simple as poor schools or bad teachers. Students cut class and ignored assignments. At the project's orientation meeting, one mother strode in cursing loudly, high on drugs.
Last fall, when her first crop of students reached eighth grade, Khan realized "that taking them to these workshops, exposing them to worldly things, doesn't matter if they can't read or write."
So foundation president Coffield turned to USC. The Black Alumni Assn. promised 15 student volunteers. Not enough. She hit up the math and English departments. By February, there were 25 volunteer tutors spending four hours each week huddled with Drew students, teaching them when to use a semicolon and when a comma, how many zeros to bring down in a long-division problem.
The college students, in their flip-flops and fraternity jackets, were often frustrated by their charges. "You have to focus," sophomore Donisha Brooks implored Zohnice Terrell, ordering the sixth-grader to redo an essay because it was too messy.
"In college, you're going to have to write in-class essays," she said. "Sound a word out, don't just scribble something down."
I watched the middle-schoolers buckle down. The attention seemed to validate them.
It must feel good to have someone respect you enough to use a word like "collaboration" and expect you to know what it means. Someone who cares enough to gently correct your pronunciation, compliment your "perfect transitions" and praise your handwriting.
Small victories were the tutors' rewards. Like the moment an eighth-grader shouted out, "How do you spell 'magazine'?. . . . No, WAIT! I can sound it out."
Drew held its eighth-grade culmination last month. But five of Coffield's 36 eighth-graders did not attend. They failed too many classes to graduate.
But they will be heading to high school this fall. "They can't stay here because there's nowhere to house them," a Drew teacher explained.
House instead of educate -- a mind set that allows warehousing.
"My kids will wind up at Jordan or Fremont or Locke," Coffield told me, "marking time until they drop out."
I've covered education long enough to know that every school has unsung heroes. Teachers like Legdrena Bennett, who grew up across the street from Drew, went to work there as a classroom aide 23 years ago, and now puts in 10-hour days teaching and working with students after school. And parents like Michelle Deese, who volunteered to make 100 sack lunches every week to feed Coffield's students when they returned hungry from tutoring.
Drew's new principal, David Garcia, is excited about the school's prospects. I visited the campus to meet him last month. Before we talked, he wanted to know: Will this be a positive story?