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Hard lesson

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.

"It's the deceit that bothers me," she says. "If he had given me all the facts, I would say run with it or not. Now it will be hard for me to trust him. He should not have been afraid to admit he had failures. He should have been truthful."

Bonner and other parents have asked to get back their application fees, which Hampton has promised to return. But Bonner has not received her money yet. Hampton claims to have returned the money to most of the parents.

It wasn't only parents who were having problems with Hampton's ever-changing story. Hampton hired Kristy Brownlow to be an administrative assistant for the school, telling her he was grooming her to eventually take his place recruiting parents. She appeared with Hampton at many meetings and spoke up for the need for the school--something positive for African-American children.

Two weeks ago, Hampton finally told Brownlow who he was, and vaguely touched on the problems he had had with his previous schools, giving her a video to watch and poster boards with articles and photographs extolling the schools in Houston and Atlanta.

But he didn't tell her the whole story, Brownlow says. She had to do some digging to find out why Hampton's other schools had closed. Then, she says, Hampton dodged her questions. Because of that, she finally decided to leave the project behind.

"I just have a lot of concerns and reservations about the school," Brownlow says. "I had to go out and do research on my own [about the schools] just to ease my own mind. I let him know that if I was going to be in the forefront of the school, I needed to know everything. I wanted to go in with both eyes open. This is not something I need to get into right now."

Brownlow says she has yet to be paid for her work for Hampton.
Another parent, who asked that her name not be used, says her decision not to put her 4-year-old son into the school was due to Hampton's evasiveness. She also didn't believe the school would be up and running by August 16, as Hampton had promised, because no teachers had been hired and the building needed work.

"I wasn't too pleased with what I was hearing," she says. "It seemed impossible that they were going to have computers and all this stuff in four months."

Yet some parents say they still are willing to give the school a chance. Deedra Walker says she wants to keep her child in the school and make it work. The Mesquite-based mother of three says she believes in the concept behind the school and that she admires Hampton's persistence in trying to open it. Businesses fail all the time. It's the people who keep trying that eventually succeed, she says.

"I couldn't care less if the man's name was Fred Flintstone, I am willing to give the school a try," Walker says. "You have to look beyond the human error and see the big picture."

At one point, Hampton told the Observer that his core parents were not returning his phone calls. "Everything is in such disarray," he said in a phone call last week. "How do I combat this? You have no earthly idea how devastating this [the article] has been."

But the school is going ahead, Hampton says. Other parents are still behind it, he adds, and the project has been put in their hands. He refused to name the parents he says are listed in the school's new articles of incorporation, or even the attorney he says is handling the legal details. The parents will have a meeting this week to decide whether Hampton will stay or go, he says.

"The parents still want to move forward," he says. "I have no power anymore. I am simply at their disposal.


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