Academy of Dreams
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.
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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.
Last year, in fact, Fred Hampton helped found and run a school in Milwaukee that was almost identical in curriculum and mission to the planned Dallas Preparatory School. Called the Milwaukee Preparatory School, it too had planned to provide a rigorous curriculum geared toward African-American children.
But in December 1995, allegations began to crop up surrounding the school's use of school-voucher funds. Milwaukee residents are allowed to participate in an unusual and innovative program which allows low-income parents to choose any school for their children, courtesy of subsidy vouchers provided by the state of Wisconsin. Milwaukee's voucher program, which was launched five years ago, led immediately to the creation of several new private schools to accommodate parents' choices for their children. Many of those new schools--including the one started by Hampton--ultimately failed.
The Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office confirmed that local school officials are auditing the records of Hampton's Milwaukee Preparatory School, along with those of several other private schools, regarding the use of these state school vouchers.
Newspaper reports state that Hampton suddenly left Milwaukee as his school descended into chaos. Its faculty had dwindled from 12 teachers to three, and those who remained weren't getting paid. The Milwaukee Preparatory School closed in February 1996, and according to articles in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Fred Hampton left town around that time--leaving his sister and two brothers in Milwaukee to deal with angry parents--and the school's debts.
Yet this is not the first or even the second time that Hampton has tried his hand at opening a private school. Newspaper reports and authorities in Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Houston confirm he started other private schools that collapsed or filed for bankruptcy in these cities. The Houston school, in fact, lasted nearly a decade and earned international praise for its innovative programs. While Hampton was criticized for mismanaging these schools, he never was charged with any crimes concerning how they were run.
Now, he has arrived in Dallas to peddle his dream once again.
Yileeh Amani Sha's revolutionary school had small beginnings in Dallas. South Dallas parents would return to their cars after church on Sundays and find fliers stuck on their windshields. The fliers announced the arrival of the Dallas Preparatory School, a pre-kindergarten-through-12th-grade school designed to help create competitive, entrepreneurial black students. The school would be nondenominational and academically tough, teaching math, science, English, and languages.
The fliers, in fact, boasted that Dallas Prep would be the "only non-Asian school in American [sic] that employs Japanese as a mandatory foreign language for all grades." Classes would be small, with no more than 20 children. There would be a four-day academic work week, with Fridays reserved for the arts--African dance, drama, speech--all the things that have been pared out of many school curricula because of budget cuts.
The fliers did not provide names of people running the school, but listed a phone number for an answering service where interested parents could leave messages.
Despite the vagueness, and the crude printing on some batches of fliers, the idea for the school clearly struck a chord among working black parents who wanted to provide a top-notch education for their children, but couldn't afford Dallas' well-known, white-run private schools.
Parents who left messages at the answering service or showed up at one of the frequent recruitment meetings for students would soon encounter the enigmatic Mr. Sha, who would make enthusiastic pitches for the Dallas Preparatory School, and often talked about its financial backers--a group of 25 African-American "founders" who wished to remain anonymous.
Sha explained that the school would make Japanese a mandatory subject because Japan has so much money invested in America. He also boasted that Dallas Prep would have the "toughest grading system in the world," because anything below an 84 would mean "needs improvement."
Sha was especially proud of what he called the school's "curriculum," a four-inch-thick stack of papers listing books and materials the students would use. Much of these materials were laser discs and electronic games. Sha explained that students would watch videos or laser discs, then play electronic games that reinforced what was seen on the videos. Then the children would play with flash cards for further reinforcement, peruse computer programs, take a break, and finally hit the books. "By the time they get to the books, they can just blow them out," Sha said.
Sha soon rode the circuit of black-oriented radio stations, spreading his message on KKDA-AM, KHVN-AM, V100-FM, and K104-FM. Sha told the Dallas Observer that he received some 1,000 phone calls when he spoke on V100 in March.
In the desert of school choices for black children, this Dallas Prep was sweet manna. Parents embraced the idea, coming up with elaborate schemes to make it work for their children. Some talked of moving from nice suburban houses into smaller apartments near the school's proposed site in Pleasant Grove to make commuting easier for their children. One parent talked of getting a second job to put her son through the school.
Maurene Cato-Perry told the Observer she was willing to sell her home, if that's what it took. Cato-Perry heard Sha's pitch on the radio and was immediately smitten. A Dallas police officer, Cato-Perry had been raising her two sons--4-year-old Jamal and 7-year-old Quinten--by herself since her husband's murder two years before. The school would be an answer to prayers.
"I mean, I don't have to have a new car every four to five years," she said. "We can move into a less-than-extravagant house so that we are not paying such a high house note. Whatever sacrifices that I can make in order to provide...I will do what has got to be done."
Cato-Perry was not alone. According to Sha, more than 110 parents, as of early April, had parted with the $75 nonrefundable application fee for a chance to send their children to the school. Some have even volunteered their time to help the school, something Sha always stressed. The school will belong to the parents--who will head committees, help choose the teachers, and sign their names to the school's articles of incorporation, he said.
This parental involvement was appealing to Ken Lewis. Lewis and his wife, Myra, came to a recruiting meeting with Sha in March, hoping to get some answers about the new school. But a few days later, Lewis found himself drafted by Sha to head the school's finance committee. He now was supposed to oversee how money from registration and tuition fees was used. Lewis said he liked that the school is geared toward black children and their needs.
"I still think that our community lost something through integration," he told the Observer. "How often in a major city do you find a private school that has such high standards geared toward African-American children?"
Over the course of three weeks in March and April, Sha spoke to the Observer about his plans for Dallas Preparatory School.
In succeeding conversations, and at various recruitment sessions for parents, discrepancies began to emerge in Sha's stories about who he was and what his school was all about.
Some things sounded just plain fishy--like the matter of the school's anonymous "founders." In one early interview, Sha said they hail from California. Later, he would state on radio they were all from Dallas.
And the discrepancies didn't stop there. Sha offered a nebulous explanation about the motivations and origins of the school's founders, too.
According to Sha, the school was founded by 25 "professors at African-American schools" who met at a health-food restaurant immediately after last year's Million Man March. One of the professors, a man named Ed Russell, challenged his friends to come up with a way to help preserve the principles of the march. They settled on starting a school.
Then--according to Sha--10 of the founding fathers set aside $10,000 each to go toward the purchase of a building for the school. The other 15 each kicked in $5,000, amassing a fund for people to travel throughout the world in search of curricula. The men each brought back the best teaching systems from Japan, Italy, and the United States, Sha said. It was his job to winnow through the selections and select the best of the best.
But the more Sha talked to the Observer about the founders, the more obscure--and defensive--he got. Sha had said all the founders were professors at African-American colleges. Could the parents or reporters talk to any of them?
No, he said. They were all traveling out of the country.
Then, when asked the same question later, he said only the principal founder--Ed Russell--was out of the country in Costa Rica, but it just so happened he was the founders' designated spokesman. The founders didn't even want to talk, Sha added, because they had been "persecuted" by people who pretended they wanted to talk to them, but were really investigating them.
Sha dithered. OK. Some don't want to talk because they are having tax problems, he told the Observer. Later, he lashed out angrily, saying that such questions about the identity of the people who donated money to the school were inherently racist.
"To me, it's prejudice and ignorance," Sha said of those who question the founders' backgrounds. "It's totally out-and-out disrespect, and an insult to our intelligence.
"You didn't do this to other people," he continued. "But all of a sudden we become of very big interest to you. You didn't think that African-Americans would come for this type of schooling. Now all of a sudden you have to check into us."
Last week, after Sha had agreed to find one of the school's founders to whom the Observer could speak, he suddenly called and left a message saying the entire school was "in the parents' hands" now, and it would be unnecessary, and inappropriate, to speak to the founders at all.
Other things about the school were cause for concern as well. Sha's "curriculum" is actually a binder full of photocopied pages from school-supply catalogues, complete with prices. It is impossible to figure out, from these materials, what children at the different levels will learn. Sha said he had indeed devised a true curriculum, but it would be "too much for these parents to handle now."
The fliers also provide an address for a search committee for teachers, along with a listing of very modest teacher salaries. But the "Suite 510" address on Samuell Boulevard leads to a mail-box rental store. And so far, Sha has hired only one teacher--a man who is not certified to teach in Texas. He will be teaching history in preschool, Sha said.
When Sha gives parents a tour of the Rylie site, he talks about how all of its 32 acres will become the school's property. But that's not necessarily true, said Cameron Sewell, a North Dallas attorney who owns the building and property. Sewell said he plans to sell the school building along with about 10 acres. But there will be no sale until he sees a business plan showing how a loan for the $1 million-appraised building would be paid back.
As for "Mr. Sha," Sewell said he didn't know him. He said he had been dealing with a "Mr. Hampton." Sewell added that he believed in the school's concept, and hoped to finance the loan on the building himself.
And then there was the man, Mr. Sha. He provided little information about himself other than his age, saying the founders had merely hired him to come to Dallas to recruit students, and that once the school got off the ground, he would no longer be part of its affairs.
Sha only volunteered a few tidbits of information: that Sha was his birth name, that he's spent a lot of time in Jacksonville, Florida, and that he'd once worked for school districts there and in Silver Springs, Maryland. (Personnel officials at these districts could only determine that no Mr. Sha--or Frederick Hampton--had worked there within the last several years. Jacksonville's records went back 10 years, and Silver Springs' covered the last five years.)
He also talked about how State Sen. Royce West's law firm would be handling the incorporation paperwork for the school. But when a parent called West's office, she was told that he had not been retained. All Mr. Sha had done was set up an appointment with West. Sha explained later he had decided not to use West's services.
Some parents noticed the discrepancies in Sha's statements, but let them pass. Joan Bonner, a nurse who wants to put her 7-year-old son, Jeremy, into the school, said she was willing to overlook niggling questions and doubts because of the hopes she harbored. She's only got one shot with her only child, Bonner said. She wants to make sure he never looks back at his life and has cause to think his mother didn't do all she could for him.
"I am willing to take a chance," she said. "If I do not take this chance with this school, then I'll never know. Someone must be willing to give them a try. Parents should be open-minded enough to work with these people instead of being critical."
Other parents weren't as charitable. One parent, who asked not to be identified, paid $150 in application fees for her two children. At first she thought the school was a great thing, but the more she talked to Sha, she said, the more he contradicted himself. She now wonders if she made a mistake.
Sha didn't look kindly on Sharon Hairston's questions, either. Hairston, who paid the $75 registration fee for her daughter, had several questions for Sha. At one point, she called KKDA-AM radio host Willis Johnson to question him after he'd put Sha on his show in April. Soon afterward, Hairston says Sha called her at work. She claims he berated her over the phone, telling her that because of her, police detectives and the IRS were after him.
Hairston says Sha told her she was a "stupid woman sitting in a stupid building...If you had a husband, you wouldn't even want your money back. And if it was a white person doing this school, you wouldn't be doing this."
Hairston told Sha she wanted her money back anyway. So far, she says, he has not returned it.
"If there is nothing wrong [with what he is doing], then why is he acting like this?" Hairston says today. "He called me and accused me of everything under the sun. I'm putting my daughter in a neighborhood school."
A parent's recollection that Sha was driving a car with Wisconsin plates eventually led the Observer to Sha's hometown--and to his past.
While Sha never seemed to park his car in sight of the Rylie school whenever he held recruitment meetings there, the Observer spotted a beat-up Pontiac Grand Am with expired Wisconsin plates near Sha's room at the Days Inn on Interstate 30 in Garland.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation traced the plates to Frederick Hampton--a 43-year-old, 5'9", 153-pound black man from Milwaukee.
A check of newspaper articles from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Houston Post, and the Atlanta Journal/Constitution provided clues to Fred Hampton's past.
Hampton started his first school in 1982 in Houston, calling it the Houston Preparatory School. The school, which educated children in the kindergarten through eighth-grade levels, was modeled after a similar program devised by Marva Collins in Chicago. It provided rigorous academics, long school days, and four-day work weeks, with Fridays dedicated to cultural pursuits.
In its heyday, the Houston school, for which Hampton served as president and owner, boasted 140 students and nine teachers. The school was lauded for its innovative teaching styles and academically accelerated students. According to a September 1990 Houston Post article, Houston Prep students routinely placed two to three grades above their tested levels in statewide basic skills tests in all subjects.
Hampton left the school in 1991 and moved to Atlanta, where he started a similar school. Soon after he moved, however, Houston Prep folded because of lack of money.
In Atlanta, Hampton's new school, Atlanta Preparatory School, would not last nearly as long. According to a June 1993 story in the Atlanta paper, Hampton had opened the school in 1991, using the same principals as in Houston, but extending its enrollment to include high-school-age students. The school had an upbeat start, but soon ran into trouble when students were expelled and former teachers complained about Hampton's management style.
A year after its start, the school filed for Chapter 11 reorganization. It closed in 1993. The Atlanta Journal/Constitution reported that about $80,000 in back rent was owed in addition to teachers' salaries. But by the time the school was winding its way through bankruptcy court, Hampton had already left Atlanta and was trying to start another school in Washington, D.C.
The next mention of Fred Hampton is in a Milwaukee newspaper. According to reports published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Hampton, his sister, and two brothers started a school for African-American children there in 1995. The school, called Milwaukee Preparatory School, used state education vouchers for funds. The school initially claimed it had enrolled 350 children and hired 12 teachers. But by the time it closed six months later, in February 1996, enrollment was down to 80, and only three teachers remained. The school closed amid a cloud of recriminations from school-voucher officials, who alleged the number of students attending the school had been inflated. Teachers reported that they had not been paid for three weeks.
It wasn't long after the Milwaukee Preparatory School closed that a man calling himself Yileeh Amani Sha arrived in Dallas in his scruffy blue Pontiac, taking up temporary residence at the Garland Days Inn.
It was there that the Observer confronted him last week. He spoke for more than two hours outside his room on the motel's second floor.
At first, he denied he was Fred Hampton. "That is my brother," he said. "My mother had two sets of twins by two different men. My brother is Fred Hampton."
When told his car was registered to Fred Hampton, he quickly responded that his brother gave him the car. Later, he said--smiling, and looking off into the distance--"Something told me I should have parked the car down the street."
And when told that he had, in fact, presented himself to the owner of the Rylie school in Pleasant Grove as "Mr. Hampton," Sha smiled again.
And then, as the conversation continued and Hampton began to explain what happened to his "brother," a curious shift in pronouns occurred: He began to use "I" for "him." He talked about "my" school in Milwaukee. He began to orate on the subjects of rebirth and redemption.
Finally, he acknowledged that he is indeed the man who started the Milwaukee Preparatory School, and the Atlanta Preparatory School, and the Houston Preparatory School.
But those articles in the Milwaukee and Atlanta papers don't tell the whole story, he said. In Milwaukee, the state lowered the amount it would provide the school for each student involved in the voucher program. And when that happened, the Milwaukee Preparatory School was not able to recover from the loss of expected funds. (The state did, indeed, cut the voucher amount per student by nearly 25 percent.)
He blamed the failure of the schools in Atlanta and Milwaukee on outside forces. "Things fail for a lot of reasons," he said. "It has nothing to do with your planning or your curriculum or your intentions.
"Let me tell you something," he added. "People have the right to mess up, and if they can do something, if they are dedicated to what they do and can do it very well, then they have a right to change whatever it was they were doing.
"People have the right to reinvent themselves. The problem with this country is that nobody can be forgiven for anything."
Hampton's disguise--as the mysterious Mr. Sha--was necessary, he said, in order for him to fulfill his life's mission: to open a competitive school for African-American children.
"I had a choice--to reinvent myself and pull this thing off," he said. "This is about saving my entire life. And as far as I'm concerned, Fred Hampton is dead."
Later, he added, "We have only so many opportunities, and this is it...You have no earthly idea the pressure I'm under. I'm changing my whole makeup. I'm changing my whole person. And if I'm not doing anything I didn't used to do, then it won't be five months [until the school closes, as it did in Milwaukee]. I'm not doing anything unethical."
In Dallas, Hampton believes he will find redemption. All he needs is one school that works--to make up for all of his past failures, and to pay back his family for all he owes them, both financially and emotionally.
"If this school does well, then this person gets their life back," he said.
As the conversation went on, Hampton became more agitated, pacing around, talking a mile a minute. He rattled on about how he admires black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan, because he lives a life above reproach. And then, in the same breath, he talked about how hard it has been keeping his identity a secret.
"You don't know how much I have thought about this day for the last few months," he said. He talked about having to keep a low profile, about having to stifle his urges to "pillage the natural resources" and talk to the local ladies, for fear of revealing himself in an inopportune moment.
"You can't live like that, waiting for the axe to fall," he said. "I just wish it had fallen later rather than sooner."
Strangely enough, the merits of Fred Hampton's vision of the perfect African-American private school cannot be denied. His ideas appear to be academically sound. The long school days, the emphasis on innovative technology to teach children, the Fridays dedicated to language and the arts have all been tried in his previous schools. Some parents reported good results in Houston, for example, stating that their children's attitudes and grades improved under Hampton's unique curriculum.
But it is clear this school has become a compulsion that spurs him on despite the trail of failures. There must be a school like this, he said in earnest. It is his calling, his mission in life. He said his quest has its origins in his childhood. He was a precocious child, with a high IQ, but he never really excelled in school. He went his own way, falling into troubles and scrapes. But he eventually came to realize the importance of education, and hit upon a plan for the perfect school. It would challenge and advance students, but at the same time bolster their self-esteem through Afrocentrism.
(Hampton's parents, contacted in Milwaukee, confirmed their son was indeed a precocious--but academically lazy--child. They said his desire to run a school stemmed from a childhood incident in which a teacher told him he'd never be able to figure out algebra because he was too stupid. Young Fred Hampton later transferred to another school, where a sympathetic teacher succeeded in teaching him algebra. From then on, Hampton believed that everyone deserved a chance for the best possible education.)
Dallas Preparatory School, as Hampton sees it, is his last chance. It's a chance to make up for wasted time. Without it, he may end up dead.
"It's a rematch with the past," he said. "I'd rather die--take cyanide, go drive into the woods somewhere--than not to prove what can really happen."
And yet, why did he leave his schools, particularly the one in his hometown of Milwaukee? Hampton said he was ordered to leave by the district attorney--at midnight--by "The Man" himself, at a hotel where Hampton had taken up temporary refuge before checking out of town. The school was "a political football," he recalled the district attorney saying. The district attorney called Hampton a smart man with great ideas, and said the DA's office had uncovered nothing criminal in Hampton's actions at Milwaukee Preparatory School. Get out of town and try this somewhere else.
(When asked about this tale, Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Fred Matestick laughs. "That sounds like something from a bad movie," he says. None of the assistant district attorneys--and certainly not the district attorney himself--has ever met Hampton, Matestick adds. The only person who met with Hampton was an investigator, "and he didn't tell him to leave town.")
The key to making the school work in Dallas, Fred Hampton said, is to keep Fred Hampton out of it. He will oversee the curriculum and the basic planning of the school. But the business end--the money--will all be handed over to the parents. Although, he admits, that hasn't happened yet. He was still holding the thousands of dollars in nonrefundable application fees.
Time, he said, will vindicate Fred Hampton--and his extraordinary vision.
"I need just one [school]--then I'll have my way," he concluded. "This is the last hurrah in life. You're fighting for significance, because if you don't do it, then how are you going to be able to help your sister, or make amends to your mother and father?
"All I need is one really great school. That will show everybody how it can be done. Then, that will give them something really to talk about.
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