While movies such as Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me glorify the near miracles that some teachers have been able to perform in inner-city schools, Dolores Sheen of the Sheenway School in Watts accomplishes something every single month that no public school teacher has ever done. She pays the school's electric bill. And the telephone bill, salaries for the school's 13 employees, and all other expenses of a private school for kids from preschool through 12th grade.
It isn't easy. She has about 60 students who are supposed to pay tuition of somewhere between $225 and $300 per month. Although the school operates year-round, this wouldn't cover the $5,000 it costs to meet state regulatory standards, even if all the students paid it. They don't. Aunt Dolores, as the kids call her, is a full-bodied black woman with blondish hair and an indefatigable smile. She speaks as crisply as a typewriter and resignedly says, "We give a lot of scholarships."
Her father, a family physician, founded the school in 1971 to give children the heart, brains, and courage to escape their riot-torn ghetto. His financial legacy, and a handful of private donors including celebrities such as Lionel Ritchie and Harold Ramis, keep the school in business. Barely. Still, the school takes no state or federal funds. "If you get these grants," says Sheen, "you're indebted to the people who give them."
Local business people contribute whatever they can—one gave two arcade video games, another loaned a full-grown hog for stud purposes when the school had a pig named Petunia. Sadly, Petunia died of fright on her wedding night because, says Sheen, "She never saw a man before." (At her wake, Petunia was roasted luau-style and served to the students—"even the Muslims"—who loved it.)
Sheen's independence gives her the freedom to create an environment unlike anything you would find in a typical public school. The pig is survived by a menagerie of small animals, including pigeons, chickens, rabbits, gerbils, geese, and a snake that has slipped out of its aquarium and is living somewhere in one of the school buildings, sixth-grader Tanisha explains, "in hibernation." The premises are guarded by Barney, a dog of uncertain parentage who stands as high as a pony—an easy comparison to make, since the school does own a pony named Apache.
Sheen hopes that taking care of the animals will teach these city kids responsibility. She wants to expose them to all kinds of new stimuli, to expand the horizons of their very limited urban lives. The students grow vegetables in a small garden across the street. One second-grader who was asked to help pull weeds quite innocently responded, "Pull weeds? You supposed to smoke weed."
She tries to teach kids what they need to know to survive in the ghetto—karate class is mandatory—and also what they need to know so they won't have to. In addition to learning the three Rs and computer skills, Sheenway kids learn about culture. They all take dance class and a Shakespeare course taught by actress Jenny Agutter.
"From Purim to Chinese New Year," Sheen explains, "we celebrate all cultures. We have seder at Passover. We've had a priest come in and say Mass." All students learn a foreign language, beginning in grammar school. Now it's French. It can be Japanese or something else depending on which teachers the school can get. Sheenway also offers English as a Second Language for Hispanic adults.
For the children, however, some of whom have spent their entire lives speaking only ghetto vernacular, proper English is a second language. Meisha, a soft-spoken 13-year-old, politely introduces herself to guests and explains, "I was the one you seen earlier." Sheen, about five feet away and on the telephone, stops her conversation to correct her. "Saw earlier. I was the one you saw earlier." But later, in a characteristic moment of boasting about her kids, Sheen slips: "These kids wouldn't steal for nothing in the world. Anything. Excuse me. I have to talk both ways."
Her energy seems limitless when she talks about her students. She still wears a neck brace, however, from a spinal injury suffered in a car accident in January. Her right arm is partially paralyzed. She has begun to think about what would happen to the school if she entered the hospital. She wonders who would do the cooking, cleaning, teaching, and other jobs that she now does and that she could not afford to hire someone else to do.
A number of parents, such as Mary Gray, are scared about having to send their kids elsewhere. Gray jerked her daughter Monique out of a nearby Catholic school after some students there beat her face bloody. Parents have begun to organize candy sales and fish frys to raise badly needed money.
The school's fate is uncertain, but Sheen's optimism is not. She believes that she is accomplishing her goal. She's reaching the kids. She's making them feel like students, not education-system conscripts. Shortly after the school was founded, she recounts, the fire bell rang. Everyone poured out into the street. The kids gathered around her. "Everything was a'clanging and a'ringing," she remembers. "And they said—these big tough gang kids—they said, 'Our dog okay? Our horse okay?' Using the word our. Ownership. And I said. 'We're in.'"
Craig M. Collins is assistant editor of REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Wizard of Watts".