Academy of schemes

The man who tried to convince Dallas parents he would build an academically rigorous private school for African-American children has instead landed in jail for fraud.

Fred Hampton, whose Dallas Preparatory School was slated to open last week, was arrested in Houston August 8 on an outstanding warrant from Milwaukee. Hampton is charged with defrauding the state of Wisconsin out of $9,100 in connection with another private school he had opened there. Last week, he was extradited from Harris County to Wisconsin.

Hampton showed up in Dallas earlier this year calling himself Yileeh Amani Sha and peddling plans to create a private school for African-American youths.

Hampton claimed to have financial backing from a mysterious group of "founders" whom he would not identify. He paraded interested parents around the site of the former Rylie Junior High School in Pleasant Grove, spinning tales of neatly dressed boys and girls who spoke Japanese and knew about computers. He proffered a catalog of school materials and described it as the future school's curriculum.

Hampton was convincing enough that some parents put down $75-per-child registration fees to enroll their children in the school, most paying in cash or money orders.

But Hampton's sales pitch began to fall apart after the Dallas Observer revealed in an April 11 story ("Academy of Dreams") that Hampton had started three other private African-American schools--in Atlanta, Houston, and Milwaukee. Each had closed for various reasons, including mismanagement and lack of state funding.

Now, the state of Milwaukee wants reparations for one of Hampton's earlier ventures.

Hampton opened the Milwaukee Preparatory School last August hoping to cash in on the city's new school choice program. The program allows low-income parents to send their children to private schools using vouchers from the state. The Milwaukee District Attorney's Office is accusing Hampton of inducing at least 10 parents to falsify the ages of their children so they could obtain vouchers to attend his school.

Only children 4 and older were eligible for the program. The complaint against Hampton states that he convinced parents of 3-year-olds to lie about the children's ages. Hampton told investigators that he received a fee of $75 per student he signed up, and that by the time he left the Milwaukee school in February to "establish other schools," he had earned $30,000.

Hampton could not be reached for comment, but his mother said her son was set up.

"It's ridiculous," she said of the charges against him. "I know there was no money taken, because I volunteered there."

Mrs. Hampton, who would not give her first name, said jealousy is playing a big part in creating the troubles her son is going through.

People are always trying to "find something wrong," she said from her home in Milwaukee. "That school was the best thing that ever happened to those children. They learned. That's the bottom line."

The bottom line in Dallas, apparently, is that no one has received refunds of the deposit fees given to Hampton.

An employee at the Days Inn in Mesquite, where Hampton lived while he was in Dallas, says Hampton checked out at the end of April. Parents contacted by the Observer say they have not heard from Hampton since late April or early May, and they do not expect to see any of their money.

"I never expected to, really," says Sharon Hairston. "I expected it to end just like this."

Bill Stonaker, an attorney who represented Cameron Sewell, the man who owns the building Hampton was touting as the site for his school, says neither he nor Sewell has heard from Hampton since the Observer story. Hampton just packed up his brochures and left, Stonaker says. "He didn't even give us back our key."

Deedra Walker is a bit more forgiving of Hampton. Walker was one of the parents who said she would stick by Hampton despite revelations of his past problems. She believed in the concept of the school and worked with Hampton for a few weeks, typing items and getting things together. She last heard from him April 26, when he came to pick up some materials from her. A few weeks later, she called the phone number for the school only to find it was disconnected.

"I don't feel badly about supporting the school and what it was about," Walker says. "I have no regrets."

For African-American parents, the appeal of the educational environment Hampton peddled was undeniable. The school, according to Hampton, would have used the latest in video and computer technology. The students would learn foreign languages, as well as dance, art, and music. When Hampton did radio interviews on KKDA as Mr. Sha, the station was inundated with phone calls for more information.

It is unclear how much money Hampton collected. During his final appearances in town, he first claimed that 110 parents had paid the $75 fee. He later changed that figure to 25 and then to 60. Whatever the number, he left with the parents' money.

This was supposed to be the first week of classes at Dallas Preparatory School, but instead of ringing with the sound of children learning African history and science, the Rylie Junior High School building is silent.

The building still is a popular draw for dreamers, Stonaker says. Real-estate agents are constantly showing it to people who are interested in starting schools, he says. In the past few weeks there have been nibbles from a large Christian organization and a few private schools. But nothing solid.

In the meantime, for Dallas it seems one man's dream has vanished. Milwaukee Police last week returned Hampton to Wisconsin, where he will face his charges and his conscience. His mother says that her son will be cleared. When he is, he may try to start another school, she says.

"I told him to tell people his curriculum; don't worry about the building," she says. "That's all he needs."

Parents here say they will go on.
"What, if anything, did I lose?" asks Walker. "$75. It is only a material thing. I'm sure it will make people a little less tolerant, a little less trusting."

She pauses. "But who knows? This may not even be the end.

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Kaylois Henry

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