Friday, February 28, 2003

Marin City school tries new approach - San Francisco Chronicle - Feb 28, 2003 - By Alex Horvath

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Marin City school tries new approach
Alex Horvath, Special to The Chronicle

Friday, February 28, 2003

It's an unusual setting for a school: an apartment in the low-income, high-rise Golden Gate Village subdivision in Marin City, built in the 1950s and operated by the Marin County Housing Authority.

A former living room, decorated with a piano, a football and a drum, now serves as a classroom, where students gather for an assembly each day before starting work. A bedroom with homemade bookshelves serves as the library; student-done paintings and vocabulary lists decorate the walls of other bedrooms-turned-classrooms.

As the students were in class in one of the third-floor units, the father of one student was working on his broken car in the parking area. For his family, commuting to school is not a big deal -- just walking up two flights of stairs.

The school uses three of the 21 apartments and a refurbished boiler room at 79 Cole Drive. But it's more than the physical plant that distinguishes Marin City's Women Helping All People Scholastic Academy -- the 2-year-old private school is run entirely by women.

"Public schools are too concerned with 'testing, testing, testing,' " said teacher Christina Beach. "I could teach these kids to pass tests in two months.

It's good citizenship that counts and that should really be the first concern. "

Although the school is based "on Christian principles and values," it is not a religious school, Beach said. "Right now, all of my students know about the Muslim religion (because of discussing international events). They are learning that religious intolerance is one of the main causes of war and strife."

Also different is the class size. Beach has only six students in her sixth- through-eighth-grade class. The school has 29 students -- 27 from Marin City and two who travel from San Rafael. Students are welcome from all over.

The program has three teachers, one full-time aide, one part-time aide and several parent and community volunteers.

The backgrounds of the teachers are unusual, too. Beach, 34, homeschooled other people's children before starting at the academy last year. Ola Bonds, who teaches the third-to-fifth-grade class, had recently left a job in the publishing industry when the school's principal and founder, Royce McLemore, recruited her as a teacher.

McLemore says the nontraditional setting seems to be working. "Two years ago, all of our students were testing under grade level," McLemore said. "Now some are higher.

"We had one student who was in sixth grade and operating at a second-grade level. By the end of his second year, he was in eighth grade and reading at a fourth-grade level. It may not seem like much, but it's two grades in two years. It also shows that the student has the ability to do it. That he had the ability to do it all the time."

Students don't take the same tests as their peers in the public schools, relying instead on a similar test administered by McGraw-Hill.

"We follow the Sausalito School District curriculum," McLemore said. "They have an outstanding program -- it's just in the implementation." She added that one reason for starting the school was that she believed students were not getting enough discipline at nearby public schools -- which she says contributed to poorer grades.

"It's different here," McLemore said. "A lot of it is discipline. Discipline and behavior are paramount. In a smaller setting, discipline is easier to administer. Students know that if they are not doing their work -- or if there is trouble -- that the first thing we do is to call the parents. They know that it is a privilege for them to come here."

Some children still push the limits: "Two students were expelled for trying to 'Ex-Lax' their classmates," McLemore said.

McLemore, 59, is a lifelong resident of Marin City who raised her five children there.

McLemore didn't graduate from college and does not have a teaching credential, but one is not required for teachers at private schools. Relying on the pension of her deceased longshoreman husband for income, the principal and executive director doesn't draw a salary.

One wall of the school holds a framed San Francisco Giants baseball jersey, autographed by several team members, presented to McLemore when she was honored as a "Giant of the Community" by the team in 1995. Nearby is an award from the U.S. Office of Housing and Urban Development for using the space in an educational fashion, along with other letters of commendation from public officials.

For McLemore, the concern is more about the children -- and the education they get on a shoestring budget.

Tuition is $2,000 a year, according to McLemore, with much if it funded through grants and donations. Families are asked to contribute $500 to $1,000 per student per year, but many cannot afford anything and are subsidized through the program.

The school raises money through grants from the county, the Housing Authority in terms of providing the apartments, and the public. "There is one donor who would prefer to remain anonymous who has sent us checks for $5,000 and $10,000 on several occasions," McLemore said.

Besides the usual educational expenses, McLemore has to contend with owing $40,000 in back payroll taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. McLemore acknowledges that such a problem might not have occurred if the center had an experienced executive director.

Right now the school can handle only up to 34 children comfortably.

The school's origins date to 1990, when McLemore was asked by Mattie Boatman to help her recruit women who were interested in improving the community.

Boatman, who came to Marin City in the 1960s from Louisiana, "was tired of seeing young women sitting around doing nothing with their lives," McLemore said.

Boatman and McLemore gathered a group of women who met every other week and talked about issues in the community and possible solutions. They began taking on the work of other parts of the community -- at no charge -- when services were cut by a local foundation.

Boatman died in 1996 -- never dreaming of Women Helping All People starting a school. That was McLemore's idea. But looking at a photo of the program's founder, McLemore said that she believes Boatman would have approved.

Marin County Housing Authority Executive Director Jan Schoder had kind words to say about McLemore and her group's efforts.

"Back in the late 1980s and early '90s, when there was a crack cocaine problem in Marin City, we got together as a community to address what we could do with this kind of activity," Schoder said. "We began developing alternatives -- which included input from youth and working with children so they could improve academically.

"That's when I met Royce. She developed a computer center and then an after- care program. She melded the computer center with some tutoring. This went on and turned into ESL and GED training for adults."

The academy is a continuation of what McLemore and others had already started, Schoder said.

McLemore said the school would like to expand, but funding is a continuing challenge.

"For me, it's really important that some sort of legacy go on in Marin City to make sure that the new people are educated and committed," McLemore said.

Page NB - 1

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home