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
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
"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
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
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.
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
One day, math teacher Ikem Chukwuma had lost his voice
by noon, a combination of a lingering cold and shouting to get students'
"You have to say things over and over," he said
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
"Can I go to the bathroom?"
"I don't have a
A few students are unabashedly sleeping.
every day that word comes up," says language arts teacher Vivian
"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
"Mmm-HMMM!" the students agree.
"What does respect
"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
"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
"She won't let me out of her sight," said Weatherspoon, who
has three children of her own. "She just needs a mama."
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
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
And then there are the intangible factors.
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
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
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.
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
firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4604.
2001, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive,