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Struggling students find a savior

Through Chaka Khan's education foundation, low achievers at Drew Middle School get help from people who care about their future.

July 12, 2009|SANDY BANKS

He ticked off the steps he's made to change the culture on campus: awards for perfect attendance, Honor Roll receptions, giant signs reminding everyone that "Student Achievement is Our #1 Priority."

But the challenge is huge, the resources few. And mediocrity has become a stand-in for success at too many inner-city schools.

That's why nearby Locke High draws applause simply because it is cleaner and its halls less chaotic since it turned charter. As our coverage has shown, students still get away with cursing at teachers in class, and teachers have expectations so low that copying word-for-word from PowerPoint slides is considered a research assignment.

As an outsider watching this sorry charade, Coffield is not afraid to say the emperor has no clothes.

"What are they learning for all the hours they spend in class?" she said. "You can place the blame wherever you want; that doesn't change the fact that it has to be fixed. It's fundamentals -- nouns, verbs, equations, fractions."

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.

She makes it sound so simple, like the basics in a first-grade primer. That's what made their program stand out to me in a world of reformers and bureaucrat-ese.

They saw a need and tried to meet it. Children stuck in the ghetto? Field trips to the suburbs. Don't know verb from subject? Bring in some tutors.

And if Coffield seemed over-the-top sometimes, I understood after she told me how she had grown up.

One of 14 children living in a two-bedroom apartment with Grandma, she was poor and angry and thought she was dumb. "I was held back in seventh grade," she confessed. "I got an F in every class."

Her life changed as her social circle grew when she joined a volleyball team. "To go to these white families' homes and have a dinner together was mind-blowing to me," she said. "To have friends say, 'I can't go out. I have homework tonight.' That was something I hadn't heard in my neighborhood." She went on to become the first in her family to graduate from college.

So she knows that transformation is possible. "First, you've got to believe," she said.

You've also got to achieve -- that is the bigger stumbling block.

::

The USC students have left for home, but Coffield has volunteers on deck for summer. Teachers from the Center for Early Education -- a tony Westside private school that Coffield's kids visited in March -- have agreed to tutor the students, at no cost.

They had their first session two weeks ago, in an empty Sunday school classroom in Inglewood. The teachers had ambitious plans: The English class would write poetry; the math students would learn to plot the slope of a line.

But by the end of the lesson, the teachers were worried. "I can't teach him to read in seven sessions," one teacher said of her seventh-grader who is reading at the second-grade level. "What is going to happen to him?"

Coffield told them what worked for her: "Let them know they are smart enough to learn."

And look for glimmers of hope, she thought.

Like the special ed kid -- always in trouble at Drew -- who zipped through ninth-grade math with his USC tutor. He needed somebody to pay attention, to break it down. Thirty-six children in a class doesn't do it.

And I think back to the principal's question: Will this be a positive story?

Only if this is its beginning, not its end.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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