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A Family Way : Their Children Are 13 Points of Pride for Compton

Times Staff Writer

There is a “rock” house down the street, about a block from the elementary school. It is so close to the home of Lonnie and Calvina Sims that they can sit in their bedroom at night and hear the whistles from drivers pulling up to buy cocaine.

Not the best environment in which to raise a single child, let alone 13. But the Sims are doing just that, with a success rarely found in even the finest neighborhoods.

Each of their children, from 26-year-old Jon to 8-year-old Darrel, either has been or is being educated in the Compton Unified School District, which opens a new year of classes Tuesday. It is a public system that often generates headlines about administrative disputes, low-paid teachers and instructional problems discouraging enough to make even the most dedicated throw up their hands.

Temptations Avoided

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Yet the Sims children have dramatically excelled in the classroom without falling victim to those struggles or the deep-seated social ills that cause many of their peers to quit school or peddle dope or run with one of more than three dozen local gangs.

The temptation of drugs especially “is out there and it’s all around,” Calvina Sims noted last week. “And it’s nothing but the grace of God that they haven’t gotten involved in it.”

Friends and teachers, however, also credit the parents.

“They are a strong family unit,” said Eric Wright, pastor of the Gospel Light Fellowship Church, to which the Sims have belonged for 12 years. “They put a tremendous stress on academics and the whole family seems to help. When you get that kind of support from the family, it’s kind of hard to fail.”

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Musically Oriented

Other kids might concentrate on playground basketball. The Sims children concentrate on playing the violin. Or the cello, or the flute, or the clarinet, or the trumpet. Every Christmas, one of them inevitably secures a spot in a county youth symphony that appears on television.

Around the house, homework comes first, bringing with it a devotion to study and a sense of discipline that has threaded its way through the family character. Every fall, the father sets down rules for the school year, like no nighttime television before 7:30 or after 9:30. A daily list of bathroom cleaning responsibilities--16-year-old Jacquelyn one day, 14-year-old Sandra the next, and so on--is tacked like a duty roster on the side of the refrigerator.

Son Calvin, 22, isn’t even the smartest, his mother said. But through single-minded perseverance, he won more than a half-dozen scholarships, graduated from Yale and last year joined The New York Times as a science and business reporter.

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“They were the motivating factor in large part, mainly in the way they approach life in general,” the reporter said of his parents. “They looked for avenues that would sort of bring out the best qualities we have and would keep us from falling into the traps that some people fall into.”

Scholarships and similar honors have been regularly bestowed upon the other Sims children as well. Last week 18-year-old Lisa picked up the Compton Superintendent’s Blue Ribbon for her high school work. This fall she will study chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, where brother Jon already studies music and directs the celebrated Black Student Union Gospel Choir. He also played violin a few times on the television series “Fame.”

Follow Homemaker Role

Peter, 19, is a biology major at UC Santa Barbara. Secrette, 25, and Karene, 20, each finished a year of junior college before settling into married life, like their homemaker mother.

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Clifford, 17 and a senior at Compton High, is not only a solid student but also a solid athlete. (Who says you can’t play violin and basketball?) Meanwhile, Jacquelyn, a Compton High junior, and Sandra, a sophomore, attend special classes for the gifted.

Jami, 13, and Marc, 11, go to Enterprise Junior High, while 10-year-old James, a budding skateboard wiz, attends nearby Tibby Elementary with Darrel.

“It seemed like every time I was in a room, I had one of the (Sims) kids,” said Vivian Waples, who taught at Tibby 28 years before recently retiring. “The children are above average, but I wouldn’t call them geniuses. It was just that every time an opportunity was offered to them, they were there, which you just don’t see in kids today.”

Life Centers on Children

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Waples had special praise for the mother.

“She centers her whole life around those kids. She worked with me and did a lot of little extra activities. . . . and she didn’t have to. She just did it.”

“The children’s material things came before the father and mother,” Waples observed. “I kind of think they neglected themselves so their kids would have.”

Calvina Sims, 44, admits as much, but isn’t sorry for the sacrifice.

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“We provided things to keep them busy"--bicycles, swing sets, educational games--"so rather than them going over to someone else’s house (to play), other kids would come over to our house.”

And “as the children came,” she continued, “there were bills” that often exceeded her 51-year-old husband’s take-home pay as a manufacturing technician.

Children Not Demanding

Although money has always been tight, the father, Lonnie Sims, said, the children themselves have been a great help because “they’ve never pressed me materially. They don’t go for Jordache jeans, they accept what they’ve got and they go with it.”

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Standing in a narrow hallway of their five-bedroom, but relatively small, one-story house, Sims recalled how he and his wife overcame difficult childhoods--he was the son of an Oklahoma sharecropper and she was deserted by her mother at age 6. After moving to California, he graduated from Compton High, and she graduated from Alhambra High. They met at a party in the early 1950s, dated two years, then married.

“We were gonna have three kids and I was gonna go back to school and she was gonna be a court stenographer,” he said. “But after our first three, we just let it happen.”

Appeared on ‘Family Feud’

Having 13 children was such a novelty that they were selected to appear in 1980 on the television game show “Family Feud.” Naturally, they won.

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Inspired by his children’s success, Sims went back to school himself, graduating three years ago from California State University, Dominguez Hills, with a bachelor of science degree in industrial management. Now he works for CooperVision Inc., an Irvine-based maker of ophthalmological equipment.

The parents beamed with pride last week as they posed for a family photograph, holding 4-year-old grandson Aumier and 2-month-old Ongele as their own children gathered around.

But apart from the family discipline, the Childcraft books, classic novels, musical instruments and other scholastic trappings spread about the Sims household, son Jon said one of the things he appreciates most about his parents was the freedom they gave the children to develop as individuals. They are also exceptional because, in an era of widespread divorce and broken families, “they’re together with these many kids,” Jon said.

Key Ingredient

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Pastor Wright cited that as a key ingredient in the whole family’s success.

“If you only have one child now you really need a father and a mother,” Wright said. “But to have such a large family like that, it’s just a . . . necessity.”

Calvina Sims commented that “there are some good things to be said” about the Compton school system and the opportunities it can offer children in other families. But she notes that the system seems to suffer from “low parent involvement.”

“Know your child’s teacher, know what the teacher is doing,” she advised. “If a teacher learns that a parent is interested in their child, they will bend over backwards.”

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Son Calvin said that even with his strong preparation and extra work, he found that the Compton schools had left him ill-prepared for some college subjects. He believes that many areas of the curriculum need substantial revision.

“A lot of that will only come when the community itself decides that they want something better,” he said. “When the community rallies behind the cause of education, I think things will change.”


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