Leaky roofs, inadequate staffing, textbook and toilet-paper shortages. They're all things Frank and Faye Clarke look for in a school, and they're doing it when most other retirees would be playing golf.
The Clarkes have been funneling donated supplies and furniture to the nation's poorest school districts since 1991, when they created the Educate the Children Foundation (ETC) with Mrs. Clarke's $300,000 retirement nest egg.
This month they're in Compton, Calif., a drab pocket of inner-city Los Angeles where they've given books, computers, and their time, guiding kids at Enterprise Middle School through a course on computer basics. The idea, Mr. Clarke says, is "to raise the bar, by whatever means necessary."
In doing so, they're entering territory where the state has gone and failed.
California's Education Department took charge of the Compton school district in 1993, after years of poor student performance. Last month, parents filed a lawsuit against the state for managing the schools so badly, they say, that children are deprived of a basic education. Against this backdrop, the Clarkes' effort may serve as a test of whether grass-roots efforts can reinvigorate schools when top-down reform begins to stall.
"The relationship we've developed with Educate the Children ... proves that when the community gets involved, it makes a world of difference," says Enterprise principal Gipson Lyles.
In the classroom where they're running the free camp, it's already making a difference to Joshua Brown, a talkative 11-year-old who is getting his first exposure to the Internet. "It's a good chance for kids to learn about things they don't know about," he says, using his mouse to click around the White House for Kids site. Spending summer vacation this way is just great, he says.
The Clarkes are using the Internet to inspire these students, many of whom read below grade level, to become better readers and writers. "Reading is fundamental to all learning. And if you can't read," Mr. Clarke says of the camp activities, "it becomes immediately apparent. But I get here at 7:45 every morning, and there are 29 to 30 kids lined up and waiting. These kids want it."
The afternoon and morning classes, held in a computer room that would otherwise be shut for the summer, are full with 30 students each. The Clarkes, a trim, energetic couple who commute from Long Beach, Calif., run both classes with the effortless discipline that comes from having raised eight children of their own.
The Clarkes have been there
Their motivation for the project is very personal. "We both come from poverty and single-parent homes, and we were both able to climb out," says Mr. Clarke, a former broadcast executive. "We thought we owed it to the future of this country to help lift these kids up."
Mrs. Clarke, an Arkansas National Merit Scholar, went on to Harvard Business School and a major role in organizing the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. ETC began when her job as a vice president of Aramark Corp. took her to school districts in Mississippi and Alabama. She arranged for Frank to visit. "I went down and couldn't believe what I was seeing," he remembers. "It was worse than in World War II or segregation. Children weren't reading, writing, thinking. Lives were being lost."
Since then, they've targeted the nation's 100 poorest school districts, establishing computer labs in rural and urban schools in Ohio, New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta, and on native American reservations in the Dakotas. The work earned them a President's Service Award in 1996.
The level of need at these schools is reflected in ETC's brochure, which asks for donations of books, school supplies, and hand towels. The Clarkes use ETC as a clearing house for old classroom furniture, educational hardware and software, and overstocked books from publishers like National Geographic.
To channel goods and provide training for donated computers, the Clarkes have marshaled a small army of volunteers, including family members and graduates of earlier ETC training programs.
They've also found creative ways to bolster the ranks of helpers. East Tennessee prisoners developed new skills refurbishing donated classroom furniture before it was sent to needy schools, and prisoners in Mississippi and New Orleans learn warehousing skills by working in storage space donated to ETC.
The greatest challenge, says Faye, is that "we've never had the funds to do this completely the way we'd like to." Finances, so far, have been limited to personal funds and a $300,000 foundation grant that must be matched, dollar for dollar, by year's end.
A profile of need
Compton easily fits their profile of need. The 35 schools in the largely black and Hispanic district have 28,000 students and standardized test scores that rank among the state's lowest. An estimated 91 percent of residents are below the poverty line.
The state of the schools raises hurdles for the district's children. The schools lack texts, libraries are inadequate, and some facilities are so degraded that bathrooms are often flooded with human waste, according to Mark Rosenbaum, an ACLU lawyer helping Compton parents bring their lawsuit against the state.
Faye says one answer lies in Compton itself. "Everything these kids hear about Compton is bad," she says. "People in the community have got to come in and help them; even a few days would help."
Working on their own, the Clarkes aren't able to track the progress of teachers or students who have received computer training and books from ETC, but Faye says the progress is visible. "We see it all the time," she says, "when the eyes light up and the good questions come."