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School Renamed for Late Track Star Griffith Joyner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years it was just another Los Angeles city school named for its address. But on Friday, 102nd Street School was re-christened Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School, a living monument to the late track star who attended the school as a child.

In a ceremony filled with tributes, student songs and speeches, about 1,000 people gathered on the playground to remember Florence Griffith Joyner.

Flo Jo, as she was known, grew up in the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts, dreaming of fame and accomplishment. She won three gold medals at the 1988 Olympics and captivated the world with her speed, as well as a flamboyant style that featured skintight outfits and glittering 6-inch fingernails. She died in 1998 at age 38, apparently suffocating during an epileptic seizure.

“Continue to follow your dreams,” urged her husband, Al Joyner, from a podium featuring a portrait of his late wife. “Her dream started here and it carried her all over the world.”

Joyner announced a $2,000 donation to the school from the Flo Jo Memorial Community Empowerment Foundation to help buy supplies and books. “I hope this school becomes one of the best elementary schools in the country, starting today,” he said.

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The school, which more than a decade ago was identified as a low-performing campus, has since improved in reading, math and language, said Sandra Wheeler, a music teacher there.

A sketch on the ceremony’s program depicted Griffith Joyner, long black hair flowing behind her, racing forward with a diploma in one hand and math and reading books in the other. The caption read: “Racing Toward Academic Excellence.”

“They say you are what you are named,” said Wheeler, a local teacher since 1963. “And now it’s named after someone the students can be proud of and inspired by.”

De’Sean Lasley, a fifth-grader at the school, was one of the many students Friday who remembered Flo Jo with affection and pride.

“I feel pretty bad she died because she was my role model,” said the 10-year old boy. “She was not only one of our own, but one of Watts’ own.”

Griffith Joyner’s strength and dedication have inspired him, he said, to work on his track skills and seek a college scholarship.

Vickeey Gibson, a fifth-grader who knew the athlete, said she “was like a sister to me.” Gibson remembers that Griffith Joyner’s favorite color was red. The 10-year old would often watch from the bleachers at USC as she flew by on the track below.

“She was such a nice and intelligent person,” said Vickeey, who wants to become a doctor or lawyer. “I’m happy our school is named after her.”

Not everyone was in complete support of the change.

Allen Talley, the 10-year-old master of ceremonies, said later: “I feel disappointed. I really wanted it to be 102nd, because Flo-Jo went to this school when it was 102nd.”

Former Los Angeles Unified School District board member Barbara Boudreaux set the stage for the name change in 1998, with a motion that allowed schools to be renamed after famous African Americans. Dublin Elementary School, for example, was renamed in October the Thomas Bradley Environmental Sciences and Humanities Magnet, honoring Los Angeles’ former mayor.

Boudreaux said she often saw Griffith Joyner at local schools, speaking to students during career days and at literacy programs. She had such a way with children that Boudreaux even tried to recruit her to become a teacher. “You’re a great athlete, but you know, you’re also a great teacher,” she recalled telling the Olympian.

Members of the athlete’s family also attended, including her mother, Florence Griffith, and her sister, Elizabeth Tate.

Tate read a note her sister wrote in her sixth-grade yearbook, on graduating from the 102nd Street School: “To my lovely sister, I hope you had a lovely time today.”

“This is one of the best days of my life,” Tate said, tears in her eyes, “and I had a lovely time here today.”


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