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An Extended Family for Black Students

Times Staff Writer

When Kandi Boyd was called into a school assembly last year at Cleveland High School, she had no idea she was stepping into an innovative learning program based on the old-fashioned notion that personal attention can make a difference between success and failure in school.

What Boyd encountered was an auditorium full of African American students, faculty and staff behaving like a family, talking about race and cultural attitudes, upbraiding one another when needed but also expressing care and respect.

The program, named the Village, was created three years ago by African American faculty at Cleveland High, in Reseda, amid some controversy, because it is aimed only at black students. It focuses on forging personal connections with students in a communal setting that epitomizes the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.”

The results in student achievement that have followed have won national plaudits and are drawing interest from school districts in San Diego and San Francisco, and as far away as Little Rock, Ark. The program was recently adopted at Chatsworth High School, and the Los Angeles Unified School District wants to expand it districtwide. The teachers who created the program, meanwhile, are working this summer to find more resources to support their effort, which as it expands will be called the Village Nation.

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“What’s different is that students see they have someone to go to for help besides your classroom teachers,” Boyd, 16, said recently as she prepared for finals. The staff, called the Village Elders, “really wanted to teach us stuff and had outside speakers come in who we could relate to. The message was that everyone has potential.”

The keys to the program are tied to the teachers’ abilities to establish a level of trust and rapport with the students, relate to their cultural traditions and convey expectations of high academic achievement.

“There’s an engagement that goes on,” said Village co-founder Fluke Fluker. “Too many of them are in a place, whether at home or in school, where they’re not being heard.”

During the school day, black students gather with teachers in meetings that are often laced with frank discussions about such topics as race, culture, relationships and negative media stereotypes of African Americans. About 315 African Americans attend the 4,200-student Cleveland High. Participation in the Village is not mandatory, but most black students attend. White, Latino and Asian students are not invited.

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Critics -- including some parents and teachers -- have called the approach divisive and stigmatizing. They also say it fuels segregation on campuses that are often already racially inflamed. When Pasadena High School recently tried to replicate a Village assembly, some students and parents were caught off guard and complained that African Americans were being unfairly reprimanded for the same issues that confront other racial groups.

Those views, however, have been tempered by impressive gains in test scores, reductions in dropout rates and improved behavior among Cleveland’s African American students. Scores on the Academic Performance Index jumped 95 points in two years, from 569 in 2003 to 664 in 2005, according to the California Department of Education. The districtwide average among all students in 2005 was 649, department statistics show.

In 2003, 36% of black students at Cleveland passed the math portion of the California High School Exit Examination. The figure rose to 81% in 2006.

Although Cleveland has shown gains throughout its student body in recent years, those by African American students have been greater than in other groups. Educators at Cleveland, backed by district officials, said they believe that the Village played a large role in those gains.

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Fueled by these achievements, Cleveland was recognized in 2005 as a California Distinguished School, the first comprehensive high school in L.A. Unified to receive the award.

“The statistics are compelling and overwhelming any way you look at it, and you won’t find gains like these anywhere in the country,” said Bob Collins, the district’s chief instructional officer for secondary education. “I’m aware there were some who complained and had been concerned, but I think they’ve proved the critics wrong.”

The Village is the brainchild of life-skills teacher and coach Fluker, social studies teacher William Paden and school dean Andre Chevalier. They realized that the uninterested, low-achieving students they knew at school were actually lively and intellectually curious youths when the teachers encountered them off campus.

The educators were also angry and frustrated at test scores that perpetually showed black youths doing worse than other groups, often scoring below immigrant children with limited English skills. They held a meeting with other black faculty and staff to brainstorm strategies and then got the OK from then-Principal Al Weiner to hold an assembly.

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Weiner “understood that as African Americans we could say things to these kids that he as a white man couldn’t,” Fluker said.

At one of their first meetings with students, teachers projected on a big screen test-score comparisons for white, Asian, Latino and black students, and those learning English as a second language. Many of the black students were shocked to see themselves at the bottom.

The Village has offered field trips, and guest speakers have included authors, athletes, musicians and businesspeople. On a trip to Pasadena City College, for example, the students heard a seminar on applying for college financial aid and listened to a panel of Chinese Puerto Rican rappers, said Beverly Tate, an assistant English professor there who organized the trip.

Meetings typically start with a poetry reading by a student, followed by robust applause, said Chris Chrenko, who just graduated from Cleveland and helped produce a video to promote the program.

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“People will stand up and give their opinion; it creates a sense of community,” Chrenko said. “You’re not going to get rid of it completely, but overall there’s less fighting and a lot less nonsense on campus.”

After some initial skepticism, many parents now praise the program.

“My kids came home talking about the statistics and how low we were, and it hit them really hard,” said Zola Chrenko, Chris’ mother.

The experience at Cleveland, however, was not replicated at Pasadena High School, where a May assembly provoked a different response from some students and parents.

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“They were taken out of their homeroom and missed nutrition and third period, and they were yelled at for being disrespectful, for wearing their hats backward and for the style of clothes they wore,” said Jill Fernandez, whose 16-year-old daughter attended. “I think the concern was, why am I being lumped in? If you have 10 bad apples, deal with them. If white and Latino students are wearing the same clothes and using slang, why aren’t any assemblies called for them?”

Assistant Supt. George McKenna of the Pasadena Unified School District defended the assembly and said meetings targeting other ethnic groups, including Latinos, had been held at other schools without incident. The program will continue at Pasadena schools, he said, but students can opt out.

The controversy reflects the sensitive nature of the concept and the need for careful planning and training of staff.

“I think that may have been a problem in Pasadena,” said Village co-founder Paden. “It was haphazard and ill planned. You have to have talk ahead of time about buy-in. We’ve got kids here at Cleveland who’ve bought into it.”

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The relatively small number of African American students has also played into Cleveland’s success, making it easier for teachers to get to know students.

“With the appropriate commitment and staff and extensive training, it can be a model,” said Robyn Fisher, an educational consultant for the College Board, which administers the SAT and other assessments. “Not everybody is a Fluke Fluker with that same level of passion and commitment. Kids can see right through someone who is insincere, and not everybody who walks in the door has the same level of respect and credibility.”


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