Students who succeed have parents who care Achievers: Several children at City Springs Elementary School are surging ahead of their classmates when it comes to reading. Visits with their families suggest some reasons.

May 20, 1998|By Debbie Price | Debbie Price,SUN STAFF

On the way home from school, a short walk down a broken sidewalk, across a busy street, 6-year-old Tyrika Washington skips over broken glass, happy with what she has learned today and will learn tomorrow.

"Nine times nine is 81. Can you spell brontosaurus? Can you write in cursive? Will you teach me how?" Tyrika chirps. Her little hand is warm and trusting inside the bigger one she clasps.

"I read today, faster than anybody."

Tyrika has read for the governor of Maryland. She has read for the academic researchers. She has read for her classmates, and she out-reads them all.

A tiny first-grader, Tyrika has been reading with second-graders all year. She could probably move even higher at City Springs Elementary School, but people there worry that she would be intimidated by the big kids.

At City Springs, Tyrika is easily the best reader in a first-grade class that overall is doing much better than others before it. In Harriet Brown's class, 10 children called the Eagles will end the year ready for a textbook that its authors say is third-grade level.

Along with the Eagles, Tyrika and another classmate, Kevin Davis, defy the stereotypes and put to a lie the notion that inner-city children can't perform as well as suburban kids.

Sure, these City Springs children are poor. Mostly, their mothers are single. Mostly, they live in public housing, some of it so miserable it is to be torn down.

They are what demographers call "at risk."

And yet, these children seem to have the important things for which statistics can't account. They have eager, inquisitive minds that delight in learning. They have parents who care.

Most of all, they have parents who care about education.

Tyrika's mother, Yvette Benton, is very clear about that.

"I just try to take it one day at a time, and I let them know how hard it is and I am struggling, and if they want to get something out of life, they have to go to school," Benton says.

Benton is ironing her uniform pants on a towel spread on top of the washing machine in their cramped apartment in Perkins Homes.

It is 3: 30 p.m. and Tyrika and her brother, Dominique, 8, are just home from school.

Benton has to be at work in an hour. She cleans office buildings after other people go home, emptying their trash, swishing a brush around in their toilets.

Normally, Tyrika and Dominique go to the Boys' & Girls' Club where the baby sitter collects them to keep them until Benton finishes work.

But today, their mother has visitors who want to know why Tyrika is so smart and how she learned to read.

An early reader

"I didn't do much," Benton is saying. "I just told her the words when she asked."

Tyrika knew her ABCs by the time she was 3; not long after that, she was reading STOP on the sign.

By the end of kindergarten, she was gobbling up short sentences. From what Benton and her teachers say, Tyrika seems to be one of those blessed children for whom reading really does come naturally.

"The whole last summer she read. Her teacher gave her 20 books. A lot of people don't think she can read like that," Benton is saying. "But she can."

Tyrika tries to read the newspaper, asking about the words she doesn't understand.

She reads the bills that come in the mail, the fliers that come through the door.

"Tyrika is the type of child you don't have to push," Benton is saying. "But she does need more of a challenge."

Repentant dropout

Yvette Benton was smart in school, too, but when she got to the 11th grade, she stopped going. She is sorry about that now.

"I tell them I didn't finish school and they don't want to have a job cleaning up," Benton says.

"Tyrika used to think cleaning up was a good job. I tell her it's not."

Life gets scattered for Benton, and she will be the first to admit it. At 29 years old, she is struggling to patch together part-time housekeeping jobs and pay the rent.

Dominique's and Tyrika's father is in the neighborhood, but she doesn't get much help from him.

Sometimes, in the morning on the way to school, Benton takes her kids to the 7-Eleven for a sandwich because there is nothing to eat in the house. But their apartment is spotless and she tells them constantly that it's not where you live but how you live.

Plans to get out

As soon as she can get enough together, they are going to get out of Perkins.

"It's hard to raise them right when you live around here," Benton says. "My children don't get to go out and play.

"I keep them in the house because I don't want them picking up bad habits, bad language, walking around with their pants hanging down. I don't play that."

Crack vials, syringes, AIDS, drug dealers -- the kids know all about those. Their uncle died of AIDS; their little cousin is sick with it, but it's OK to play with him.

These are facts of life on Herring Court -- the "worst court" -- in one of the city's more derelict housing projects.

"There's trash on the ground," Tyrika says, wrinkling her nose. "I don't like it here."

"There's shooting," Dominique volunteers. "What would you do if you heard gunshots?"

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