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For black students, a family at school

LOS ANGELES -- When Kandi Boyd was called into a school assembly last year at Grover Cleveland High School, she had no idea she was stepping into an innovative learning program based on the old-fashioned notion that personal attention can make a difference between success and failure in school.

What Boyd encountered was an auditorium full of black students, faculty, and staff behaving like a family, talking about race and cultural attitudes, upbraiding one another when needed but also expressing care and respect.

The program, named the Village, was created three years ago by black faculty at Cleveland High, with some controversy, because it is aimed only at black students. It focuses on forging personal connections with students in a communal setting that epitomizes the African proverb ``It takes a village to raise a child."

The results in student achievement that followed won national plaudits and are drawing interest from school districts in San Diego and San Francisco, and as far away as Little Rock, Ark. The Los Angeles Unified School District wants to expand it districtwide. The teachers who created the program are working this summer to find more resources to support their effort, which as it expands will be called the Village Nation.

``What's different is that students see they have someone to go to for help besides your classroom teachers," Boyd, 16, said recently as she prepared for finals. The staff, called the Village Elders, ``really wanted to teach us stuff and had outside speakers come in who we could relate to. The message was that everyone has potential."

The keys to the program are tied to the teachers' abilities to establish a level of trust and rapport with the students, relate to their cultural traditions, and convey expectations of high academic achievement.

``There's an engagement that goes on," said Village cofounder Fluke Fluker. ``Too many of them are in a place, whether at home or in school, where they're not being heard."

During the school day, black students gather with teachers in meetings that are often laced with frank discussions about such topics as race, culture, relationships, and negative media stereotypes of blacks. About 315 blacks attend the 4,200-student Cleveland High. Participation in the Village is not mandatory, but most black students attend. White, Hispanic, and Asian students aren't invited.

Critics -- including some parents and teachers -- have called the approach divisive and stigmatizing. They also say it fuels segregation on campuses that are often already racially inflamed. When Pasadena High School recently tried to replicate a Village assembly, some students and parents were caught off guard and complained that blacks were being unfairly reprimanded for the same issues that confront other racial groups.

Those views, however, have been tempered by impressive gains in test scores, reductions in dropout rates, and improved behavior among Cleveland's black students. Scores on the Academic Performance Index jumped 95 points in two years, from 569 in 2003 to 664 in 2005, according to the California Department of Education. The districtwide average among all students in 2005 was 649, department statistics show.

In 2003, 36 percent of black students at Cleveland passed the math portion of the California High School Exit Examination. The figure rose to 81 percent in 2006.

The Village is the brainchild of life-skills teacher and coach Fluker, social studies teacher William Paden, and school dean Andre Chevalier. They realized that the uninterested, low-achieving students they knew at school were actually lively and intellectually curious youths when the teachers encountered them off campus.

At one of their first meetings with students, teachers projected on a big screen test-score comparisons for white, Asian, Hispanic, and black students, and those learning English as a second language. Many of the black students were shocked to see themselves at the bottom.

The Village has offered field trips, and guests have included authors, athletes, and musicians,

After initial skepticism, many parents now praise the program.

``My kids came home talking about the statistics and how low we were, and it hit them really hard," said Zola Chrenko, mother of one of the Village participants, Chris Chrenko .

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