Hard lesson

Dreams of an African-American prep school wane

Disillusionment has replaced dreams for many African-American parents who had hoped to send their children to an innovative private school promoted by a Milwaukee man.

Some parents have told the Dallas Observer they no longer want to put their children into the school--which, outside of a leased, vacant school building, has not really taken shape. What they once saw as an answer to prayers for African-American-based education, isn't. "It looks like I'll just have to keep looking," says Maurene Cato-Perry. Cato-Perry, a single mother of two sons, visited the site for the school two weeks ago and was impressed with what she heard. But, she says, something didn't feel right.

"I had questions about the financial backing that were never answered," she says. "It's a good concept. It's too bad."

Other parents say recent revelations about the man who made the pitch for the school, Yileeh Amani Sha, were the reasons for their trepidation. The Observer revealed in an April 11 story ("Academy of dreams") that Sha was really Fred Hampton, a man for whom starting private schools for African-American children has become a mission.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Hampton started schools in Houston, Atlanta, and Milwaukee. The schools ultimately closed for various reasons, including mismanagement and lack of state funding.

The school in Houston was the most successful, lasting from 1981 to 1991. Newspaper articles reported that students often placed two or three grade levels higher than other students their age in basic skills tests. Parents also talked of the improvement of their children's attitudes and behavior.

But Hampton's other schools didn't fare as well. The school in Atlanta closed after two years amid accusations of mismanagement, and ultimately the same fate befell the Houston school. Hampton's most recent venture, in Milwaukee, closed in February after only five months--supposedly because of a change in a citywide school-voucher program. But even before it had closed, Hampton had already moved on to Dallas and begun calling himself Sha.

People drawn into Hampton's plans say the revelations about name changes and his past history were a bitter blow after having given Hampton their trust and, in many cases, their money.

"I can't say that I'm really happy when someone lies to me," Bill Stonaker says. "There is a basic level of trust, and once you break it, it's hard to repair."

Stonaker works for Cameron Sewell, the North Dallas attorney who owns the proposed location of the school, the former Rylie Junior High in Pleasant Grove. Sewell and Stonaker first met Fred Hampton when he approached them about leasing the building. At one point, Hampton told them that another man would come along later to recruit for the school. Although the man would look and sound just like him, Hampton explained, the second man would not be him; it would be his "cousin" Yileeh Sha, Stonaker recalls.

"I don't know what this guy was thinking," Stonaker says. "He's in the Bible Belt. We like the truth and an underlying sense of trust."

Stonaker says he and Sewell have not talked to Hampton since the story ran, and they are discussing what to do. "We're still trying to get some use out of that school building," he says. "This thing [the private school] is a great idea. I would hope the parents who are so gung-ho about it would...start a charter school."

Hampton told parents he had put $100,000 earnest money down on the building. Stonaker laughed when he heard that: "I would have known about this if there was."

But discrepancies in Hampton's story had been piling up all along. When the Observer first confronted him about his past identity, Hampton asked that the story be delayed, explaining that he would only need two days, then a week, then two weeks for the school to be "totally in the hands of the parents." But in interviews with Hampton even after the story ran, the status of the school is still unclear. Today he claims that a group of parents are going forward with the project, but that he no longer has anything to do with it.

For African-American parents, the attractiveness of the educational environment Hampton described are undeniable. The school, according to Hampton, would have an academically rigorous program geared mainly toward African-American children. Students would use the latest in video and computer technology. The students would also learn Japanese and other foreign languages, as well as dance, music, and art.

When KKDA-FM radio did interviews with Mr. Sha, the station was inundated with phone calls for more information on the school. Many parents had paid a $75 nonrefundable, cash-or-money-order-only application fee per child for the school. Hampton first said that 110 parents had paid the money, then changed that number to 25 after the story ran. Now he says 60 parents have paid.

Whatever the number, some of those parents now feel duped.
Joan Bonner was willing to push aside her suspicions to help make the school work for her 7-year-old son Jeremy. But after reading about Hampton's past, she says she can no longer trust her son's education to a man who isn't honest.

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