An inner-city mother has high hopes for her sons' education

Betty Lewis lives in a predominantly black housing project in a north Minneapolis neighborhood of rusted cars and battered garbage cans. Her two-bedroom apartment is just large enough for herself and her two sons, who are bused each day to a public school about six miles away.

Ms. Lewis is quite satisfied with the school, which is fortunate. Unlike wealthier parents, she has virtually no choice of where she lives and little choice in where Robby, 14, and George, 9, attend school.

''My welfare check comes to about $500 a month,'' she says. ''The food stamps come to another $75. Then I pay $35 for my housing and gas bills that amount to highway robbery. But we make ends meet.''

Ms. Lewis has lived in the same project for 14 years. She has not worked full-time since ill health forced her to quit a job 16 years ago. But she is now in secretarial school and hopes she can get a job as a receptionist.

''I'm trying my level best to see that my kids get their education,'' she says. ''Education - that's my first priority. If Robby and George don't learn anything else, I want them to learn the basics - reading, writing, and arithmetic. That's what's important. And I want my boys to hang in there, to get their high school diplomas.''

In Minneapolis, the school district provides schools that take different academic approaches, and parents can generally choose which type of school their children will attend. Ms. Lewis selected an ''open'' school - one in which the students are in ungraded classes and are able to participate with parents and teachers in planning the activities. There, she says, ''they treat the children - from the youngest to the oldest - not like little people, but like human beings.''

While she must often cope with school officials and a society that at times ''is quick to pass judgment on a welfare mother,'' she says she feels fortunate that her children have teachers with whom she can communicate.

She is particularly pleased with Robby's teacher, who has taken the class up to northern Minnesota to watch the annual hawk migration - something she could never afford to do with her son.

The teacher also hosts potluck suppers at his home for his students and their parents. ''We get together so we can get to know each other, giggle together, and have a good time,'' Ms. Lewis remarks.

The only serious complaint she has is that her sons attend school so far from home. ''I don't like this busing across town,'' she says. ''I'm scared of what would happen if one of my boys got sick, or got in a fight in school and I had to get there real fast.'' She does not have a car and has to rely on public transportation, which in Minneapolis means infrequent buses.

This also makes it difficult for her to attend conferences with her sons' teachers, but she goes because their education is so important to her.

''I dream of having them become doctors or lawyers,'' she says. ''Actually, I guess I want them to be whatever they want to be. But I hope and pray to God that they make something of themselves.''

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