Academy of Dreams

The enigmatic "Mr. Sha" brought black Dallas a vision of a prep school but it's a dream he's sold before

It was a dream of such irresistible appeal--so simple, so timely, so full of promise--it was amazing someone hadn't dreamed it before.

Why--the dreamer asked--should white children alone possess all the educational advantages, with an array of elite private schools designed to cater almost exclusively to their needs?

Why couldn't black Dallas come up with its own school, a place that cultivated students capable of competing nationally and internationally with children of all backgrounds? One that would root each of those students firmly within an Afrocentric tradition--producing young men and women brilliantly fluent in two cultures, that of white America, and that of their ancient forefathers?

Why not, indeed?
Dreaming this dream, as he had most of his life, a mysterious, well-spoken man rolled into town earlier this year and took up temporary residence at a motel in Garland. He lived a spartan life, and called himself Yileeh Amani Sha.

He brought with him a singular vision: to create an academically rigorous preparatory school for African-American children in southern Dallas.

With anyone who would listen, he shared his dream for the Dallas Preparatory School. It would, he said, become a showcase for innovative teaching styles and new technologies gleaned from all over the world. Its foundation would be unabashed Afrocentrism: Teachers would emphasize Marcus Garvey, the Jamaica-born, entrepreneurial nationalist, over Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.--civil-rights leaders who owned nothing. It would turn out children who were smart, competent, and ready to deal with the world as it moved into the new millennium.

"Mr. Sha," as he came to be known, quickly found a site for his proposed academy--in the former Rylie Junior High School on Rylie Road in Pleasant Grove--and began holding frequent recruiting meetings for prospective students of the Dallas Preparatory School, which he slated to open on August 16, 1996.

He papered cars in South Dallas with fliers touting the school, and made the rounds of black radio shows and local media outlets, pitching Dallas Prep on KKDA-AM, V100-FM, KHVN-AM--and to reporters at several television stations and newspapers, including the Dallas Observer.

Even Mr. Sha admits he was surprised by the extraordinary response: Black Dallas was utterly captivated by his dream.

Sha says the answering service he'd hired to field inquiries from interested parents was so inundated with calls, it had to back out of its contract. And dozens of working-class parents plunked down their hard-earned money for a nonrefundable $75-per-child application fee that reserved a space in the school.

"Our goal is to be very well-recognized in this city in one year," Sha told a group of enraptured parents during a recent recruiting meeting held at the 32-acre Rylie school site. "Then to be the top African-American school in the nation within three years, and the top school on the planet in five. This is not wishful thinking here. We've got to have people with vision."

Afterward, Sha, 43, a diminutive, intense man with a lithe build, a head of closely cropped, waved hair, and a tawny complexion, ushered those parents around the Rylie facility. He gave them a tour of the mothballed former school, with its peeling paint, warped gym floor, and hallways filled with empty, industrial-size casks for spices that had once been stored there. He showed them the classrooms. He showed them the grounds where a boarding-school facility would eventually be built. The school needed a little work--just cosmetic stuff, Sha said. Broken windows would be fixed. Trim would be painted. The rippled gym floor would be repaired and polished.

Sha's appearance was plain and neat: collarless white shirt, just like the ones male students would be required to wear at Dallas Prep, and starched and pressed cotton trousers. His earnest patter to parents was a near-seamless blend of academic buzzwords and 'hood slang.

"Children aren't dumb," he said, while explaining the school's no-lock locker policy--which assumes children would rise to a standard of integrity. "Children know you don't play that nonsense, and are just not going to do it [steal]."

A few little details bothered some parents. For the $75 fee, Sha would accept only cash or money orders. With a fledgling school, he explained, all accounts need to be perfect. And when asked publicly about his background, Sha often dodged the question or provided vague, sometimes contradictory answers.

Parents accepted these small inconveniences, ready and willing to work to make this academy of dreams a glorious reality in Dallas.

If only they knew the stuff this dream was made of. They would certainly be surprised to learn that "Mr. Sha" has not always been Mr. Sha, despite his assertion at one Dallas recruitment session that Yileeh Amani Sha is his birth name--meaning "he will become peaceful ruler" in the Seminole Indian language. His original name, in fact, is Fred Hampton--and he hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

And this Fred Hampton, not to be confused with the Black Panther of the same name, came to Dallas with a new identity in order to hide a controversial past.

Fred Hampton the educator, indeed, has quite a history--of starting preparatory schools in Atlanta, Houston, and Milwaukee that would all eventually fail amid accusations of mismanagement.

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