Wary of the turbulence in the public school system, Lawrence and Kim Dade enrolled their 5-year-old son in a private school.
The Dades were one of many families who last year chose private schools over the Little Rock School District, which was beginning a desegregation program involving cross-town busing and the reassignment of students and teachers to effect a numerical racial balance.
White flight has been a problem in the school district for some time, but the Dades are black. Their son, Lawrence III, attends McGraw Learning Institute, the only black private school in Little Rock.
“We wanted a positive, strong school and, basically, a black school that was strong in academics,” Dade said. “We had taken our son to other schools and they didn’t seem to have the care and, really, the motivation that it took. Because my son was brought up in a more mixed environment--more whites than blacks--we thought it was time to have the reverse, as well as have a good academic background.”
McGraw has earned a reputation for academic excellence since it opened as a preschool day-care facility in 1982. Patricia McGraw founded the school in a converted grocery store near downtown soon after she earned her doctorate in sociolinguistics from Washington University in St. Louis.
“I thought it was a necessity,” said McGraw, an English professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “For about 20 years I’ve taught on the college level, and it has been my experience that many black students do not use the language well, even after 12 years of schooling. They do not feel good about themselves and generally . . . most of them need something that has been lacking in the school systems.”
In the beginning, most of McGraw’s pupils were the children of her university students. Currently, she has about 60 students, mostly children of business and professional people, at the institute. More than half are preschoolers; the rest are in kindergarten through third grades.
The institute is state-certified to teach through the sixth grade, and has a long waiting list. The children are taught basic reading, writing, mathematics, geography, science, music and dance, and French as well as English. Special emphasis is placed on language development and computer training.
Just as important to most parents, McGraw said, are the lessons in cultural awareness and social skills and the experience of going to a school where blacks are in the majority.
“A very crucial and important part of our curricula is to be sure that these young people have good feelings about themselves and their people,” McGraw said. “Most often, we are told very little about how we happened to be where we are. At this school . . . we teach young people parts of African and Afro-American history that can make them feel good about themselves. That, I know, they don’t get anywhere else.
“These little folk come from a people that has been greatly neglected in this society, so they need some special kind of emphasis to make them know that they are really something awfully great,” she said. “I think that’s what we give them.”
The school is not for everyone, McGraw conceded. Many families cannot afford to pay the fees, about $2,650 annually for the year-round program.
The school has several pupils of mixed race and one white child in its after-school program. The mostly black enrollment and the emphasis on black culture have discouraged some black parents, McGraw said.
Myth of Integration
“Many black parents . . . have been conditioned to believe that things cannot be good if (their children) are not mixed with whites,” she said.
At McGraw, small classes enable the seven teachers to give individual attention, the one feature most parents cited as the reason they chose the school.
Alma Stewart described her 5-year-old son, Curtis, as “a slower learner” who needs it.
“He needs to be pushed. Some (public school) classrooms are overcrowded, and they don’t take the time that they need to take to push our kids,” she said. “That’s my reason for sending him (to McGraw).”
Shelly Wilkins-Robinson said her daughter was more advanced academically than some other 4-year-olds, but was not getting the educational base she needed from her former school.
“At McGraw, she’s already reading and knows phonetics, numbers, alphabets. The way the teachers here have worked with her, she knows now that she can read almost anything.”
Star Pupils Cited
Several pupils who got their early training at McGraw have advanced rapidly in the public school system. Khiela Holmes, 7, scored in the top 1% on a nationally standardized math test she took a year ago. On average, first-graders in the Little Rock district scored at the 57th percentile on the Metropolitan Achievement Test in the 1986-87 school year, according to Sue Tadlock, a district evaluation and test specialist.
Khiela completed kindergarten at age 5 1/2. She finished the first-grade math program within two months of her first year in public school and was doing third-grade-level problems by the time she reached second grade. She also excelled in reading, English and science.
“Khiela started at McGraw at 2 1/2 and stayed through 5 1/2. We feel that a lot of her ability now is attributable to what McGraw did,” said her father, Tracy Holmes. “All those years, she had one-on-one attention. She excelled in all her studies and she enjoyed what she was doing.
“That’s the key,” he said. “They made her feel confident in what she was doing. She felt good about herself.”
Scores Compared in Study
A study conducted by the Urban League of Arkansas concluded that black students in the state have not achieved at a competitive rate. The report questioned whether they are getting an adequate early education in the public schools.
“Without appropriate preparation during early school years, the future academic achievement of black students is left to chance,” it said.
Charles M. Hodge, author of the report, said the McGraw school is a good alternative to public elementary schools, which he said are largely insensitive to the needs of blacks.
A predominantly black enrollment and emphasis on black culture are not inconsistent with desegregation goals, said Hodge, who is dean of the University of Central Arkansas College of Education.
“In fact, they’re probably doing more in addressing the issues of a multiracial society,” he said.