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Delray Beach Academy

A picnic at the beach with home-cooked ribs and jerk chicken and all the fixings. Children lined up to whip the adults at dominoes. Kidding around, running in the surf, relaxing and laughing. An easygoing day in the sun, family-style.

As the afternoon wound down, two boys scuffled and were separated. After the brief incident, the anger was sopped up and squeezed out by the group.

The picnic -- and even the tussle at the end -- looked like just another get-together of extended family. It was actually a school event, a well-earned payoff for students and teachers after a long, hard academic year.

The picnic was one of the many small victories for Delray Beach Academy and its students.

Delray Beach Academy conducts education family-style, just like the picnic. The 67 students, three teachers and four adult behavior monitors have come to know each other like relatives. Some of the adults at the school grew up in Delray Beach neighborhoods with their parents and grandparents.

In an age when many schools practice the latest educational fad, the rules at Delray Beach Academy are disarmingly old-fashioned: Come to school prepared to learn, listen in class and try to do the work.

Those goals might seem low, but for many of Delray Beach Academy's students, it will take all three years to master them.

"When they first came here, some of them did not know how to sit down in the seat," said Principal Joe Green, a former physical education teacher and businessman who three years ago opened a charter middle school for children who are close to disciplinary schools, expulsion or worse. For, the next stop could be jail. Some, not yet old enough to drive, already know the weight of an electronic monitoring bracelet above their gym shoes.

"[Others] look at our children as problem kids. Here, they are more than students; they are basically family," said Marian Weatherspoon, one of the school's behavior monitors.

Many students were underachieving in reading and math when they arrived.

It remains to be seen whether the fledgling charter school can accomplish what mainstream schools have not. While the students' standardized test scores remain low, Green focuses doggedly on his own goals -- attendance and behavior. The children have to be in school and listening before they can raise test scores, he said.

Unlike the beach party, a school day at Delray Beach Academy can be a grim struggle between students who seem to hate every moment in class and teachers determined to cram their brains with as much math or social studies or literature as a class hour allows.

This is education stripped down to its essentials: a bare room, a hoarse and harried teacher, and a room full of antsy teenagers. Yet the students used to ditching school keep coming back for more. When they are suspended, they hang around the back door.

"They say, 'Can we just come back in?' They want you to discipline them," said Zerleane Williams, a school volunteer.

One day, math teacher Ikem Chukwuma had lost his voice by noon, a combination of a lingering cold and shouting to get students' attention.

"You have to say things over and over," he said wearily.

Chukwuma stays because he thinks that as long as students are sitting in his class, they are safe.

"Here, you are saving somebody's life," he said.

The first 10 minutes of class are spent on handling interruptions from students.

"He spit on me!"

"Can I go to the bathroom?"

"I don't have a pencil."

A few students are unabashedly sleeping.

"Respect, every day that word comes up," says language arts teacher Vivian Gordon.

"Respect for yourself, respect for others. When you take somebody else's property, you are trying to make your day and in the process destroy somebody else's. Do we see a lot of that around here?"

"Mmm-HMMM!" the students agree.

"What does respect mean?"

"If my mama is yelling at me, I don't say anything. She might punch me," answers a student.

In language arts teacher Vivian Gordon's class, a magical switch seems to click after half an hour. The students are finally paying attention. Some are even commenting on the topic, a short poem Gordon has read and discussed with his class.

"I came here thinking I can make a difference," Gordon said. "I still think I can. However, my biggest concern is absolute lack of parental involvement. I want them to show some concern and have some say, just do something. But I will call and the phone is disconnected, or no one is home."

Elsewhere, children line up to hug discipline monitor Marian Weatherspoon. One lanky teen, thumb in her mouth, is content just to sit snuggled up beside her.

Already a surrogate parent for many students, in April, Weatherspoon became the legal guardian of a student whose father abruptly left the country. The girl's mother died when she was 2.

"She won't let me out of her sight," said Weatherspoon, who has three children of her own. "She just needs a mama."

The girl had been in trouble with the law but now is following Weatherspoon's house rules: Do your homework and go to church.

The educational label here is "at-risk," students who come to school with a backpack full of grown-up worries. Besides being potential dropouts, about 90 percent of the students' families have incomes below the federal poverty line, single-parent families or parents with little education, staff members said.

They are sometimes referred to as "throw-away kids." They have made it to sixth grade, but their chances of graduating high school are very low.

Staff members estimate that up to 80 percent of their students live either with a single parent or another relative, such as a grandparent.

And then there are the intangible factors.

"One girl, yesterday I took her home to take a shower and threw her clothes in the washer. Sometimes they just need somebody to guide them if they didn't get it when they were young," school volunteer Zerleane Williams said.

At an after-school basketball game, the cultivated I-don't-care attitude melts away. In the stands, students are rhythmically shouting "Go DBA!"

The DBA team plays with a ferocious concentration and wins 50-11. Sixth-grader Leonard Miller does a no-hands back flip to celebrate. DBA students swarm the team. Shabree Hunter and others break into a spontaneous victory dance.

The game has been over almost a half-hour when eighth-grader Wilny Daceus takes notice of a small cut on the inside of his lip. He nurses it briefly, but he has better things to think about -- 12 points and six steals. Triumphant, he races to catch up with two teammates to walk home and relive the game.

Sixteen eighth-graders graduated this year, headed to high schools or technical schools. They had regular training sessions in career choices and techniques for getting and holding jobs. Those with good grades and behavior could interview for after-school jobs.

At graduation, Green passed from one eighth-grader to the next, touching their heads while he recited their career plans: law school, nursing, marine technology, culinary arts.

"We undertook a massive assignment," Green told their families. "But I am confident that every eighth-grader is prepared."

Teacher Robin Neeley read the graduates a piece she wrote for the occasion. On most days, her voice can be heard down the hall, bellowing to students to sit down and pay attention. This time, her voice was soft with emotion.

"I have seen your faces when they lit up. That spark lit up my soul. I have sewed your shirts and dried your tears. You are not a throwaway. Know that I care for each and every one of you," she said.

Lona O'Connor can be reached at lo'connor@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4604.
Copyright 2001, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.

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