The Story of the Sims Family: Part II

San Francisco Chronicle | August 27, 2003

By Leslie Guttman

Mary Sims lay on the hospital bed at Doctor’s Medical in San Pablo, a handful of heartbeats left. Nearly all of her 12 children were around her. Five of them were teachers in Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood, struggling to keep a charter high school open for kids who were gang-bangers and drug dealers, addicts and thieves.

The light in the intensive care room was dim, most of it coming from the nurses’ station right outside the door. Death would come soon for Mary Sims, who had congestive heart failure, kidney failure and many other health problems. Tubes were everywhere. She could no longer talk because of a tracheostomy. It was Oct. 22, 2002, and she would die the next day.

She had come to Richmond from west Arkansas in the late 1940s, with no formal education and nothing but desire and gumption, like thousands of others looking for jobs as shipyard or migrant workers. Now she was the matriarch of one of the most admired and educated families in Richmond, and a graduate of Contra Costa College.

Mary Sims’ path had been stony, and she wanted others to have an easier way. As she held each of her children before a surgery from which she would not recover, she mouthed her last wish:

"You got to keep that school going."

Eight and half months later, Melita Sims-Agbabiaka sat in the front row of the West Contra Costa Unified School District board meeting — her third time trying to keep the charter of the Barbara Alexander Academy from being revoked. Her breath came unevenly. She was nervous. Sims-Agbabiaka was director of the charter high school for the forgotten children of the district, and she prayed silently that she would be able to continue.

The meeting, held July 9, was in the huge multipurpose room of Richmond’s new Lovonya DeJean Middle School. It was a hot day, and the air was thick and warm in the newly minted room with gleaming black, aqua and pink linoleum.

Sims-Agbabiaka had been praying continuously since she and her siblings started the academy in 2001, as the tiny school had one problem after another: five moves, in part because many neighbors didn’t want the troubled teenagers in the neighborhood (even if they were from the neighborhood); at least eight revocation letters,with violations continually asserting that the school’s finances were out of whack.

Sims-Agbabiaka’s life had been threatened by a gun-toting thug furious that one of her students had stolen his wallet. Her students were in rival gangs, and the possibility of gunbattles on campus was always present. She and her siblings had worked their way up from welfare to the middle class, but now they were so broke from trying to save the school, they found themselves evading creditors. Both their savings and retirement money was gone.

Yet they all kept going. Many of their students had parents who were in prison or dead from AIDS, other teens sold drugs and sold their bodies, countless were short on hope and long on the experience of being sexually, emotionally and physically abused.

Sims-Agbabiaka sat proudly at the meeting with one of her two young daughters beside her. She wore a black dress with golden-orange trim and a matching jacket. She was the oldest sister of the Sims family, and with her mother now dead, she was, at 48, the matriarch. To look at her, dignified and elegant, it was hard to believe that she had applied for and been denied welfare.

More family members filled out the entire back row. Israel Sims, the youngest brother and one of the school’s teachers, calls the family a chain event. You never saw one of the clan — at the grocery, on the sidewalks or at church — without seeing a bunch of others coming along.

The family waited impatiently for its turn on the agenda, sitting through a number of presentations to the board, including one by a tall police officer heading up an after-school program. He said that in a three-day truancy sweep in May, his officers had found 248 kids in the district cutting class.

"Every day, you can go out and see our youth on the streets," the officer said. "In some kind of way, we’ve got to stop it."

Sims-Agbabiaka laughed to herself at the irony: In some kind of way, she was trying to stop it. Tonight, that effort might die. At the last revocation hearing in early February, she promised the board that if she did not get the annual average daily attendance of her financially troubled school up from 50 to 80, she would agree to shut it down. At 80, the school would be eligible for a facility from the district under Proposition 39, helping to ease the financial burden.

Sims-Agbabiaka had gotten the number up to about 60, but hoped the progress she had made would persuade the school board to give her one more chance. She was in the final stages of securing a $400,000 state startup grant for charter schools, her attendance had increased and the academy had graduated 16 seniors who otherwise might never have gotten a diploma.

But to school district general counsel Alan Hersh, the academy was a catalog of trouble: late fiscal reports, finances that he and his staff calculated as unstable, permit problems and credentialing hurdles. When it came time, he told the board that the school’s failure to reach 80 meant it was "not fiscally viable" and exposed the students, staff and district to "liabilities . . . which are not acceptable."

Internal Auditor Bryan Richards said his analysis was in agreement, and to get that number next year, they would need to have about 142 students enrolled, and their city operating permit allowed only 100. Their enrollment was in violation even now, he said.

But Richards’ biggest worry — even with the $400,000 grant — was the school’s continuing operational deficit: Attendance projections were too low, and the current number of teachers too high, to support the amount of revenue estimated, he told the board.

Sims-Agbabiaka came to the podium. She argued that $100,000 of a $250,000 charter school state loan had already been paid, and payments were continuing to be made. And she pointed out that approximately $120,000 of the overall deficit came from a loan made by the family that they felt no rush to pay back to themselves.

But the school board members, somber, voted unanimously to revoke the charter. One student ran after Sims-Agbabiaka as she walked out the door of the meeting: "What’s it mean, what’s it mean?" she asked her. "They shut down our school," Sims-Agbabiaka told her gently.

School board President Patricia Player would say later that she, like other board members, wanted the school to succeed. But she believed it had serious financial instability. And even though the state said it would not hold the district accountable for any of the academy’s debts, she worried about liability. The district’s bankruptcy in the 1990s is an ever-present phantom, and a $28.5 million state loan is still being paid back.

The Sims family, Player believed, needed grants and financial consultants to make their school viable. But nothing has changed her view of them as brilliant educators expert at reaching kids whose lives are as fragile as hand-blown glass.

Like numerous other charter school operators, Sims-Agbabiaka was facing formidable financial obstacles she had not anticipated. But what she saw at her particular school was an obstacle course: Students who did have parents were often in a cycle of violence, addiction and poverty themselves. And many community members, rather than offer support for their own young people, pressured the Simses to move the academy out of their neighborhoods, turning it into a gypsy school.

All that added to the financial burdens, said Sims-Agbabiaka: costs piling up from multiple moves, repeated attempts to keep building codes up to date with meager finances and loss of attendance revenue when parents, who could hardly care for themselves, failed to get children to come to class.

Now, the Sims family is turning to the Contra Costa County Board of Education, petitioning that body to sponsor the Barbara Alexander Academy’s charter. Although a final decision isn’t expected until the Sept. 17 board meeting, the Simses and their supporters are turning out at tonight’s meeting in Pleasant Hill to speak at a public forum, in the hope of influencing the board.

In reaching into the darkest corners of Richmond the past two years, Sims-Agbabiaka and her family have lost almost everything they have. They say they don’t regret a moment of it.

Thirty-one students were scheduled to graduate in 2004 from the school, according to Sims-Agbabiaka. Sylvester Greenwood, assistant superintendent for pupil services for the West Contra Costa School District, says places are available for the students elsewhere in the district. A number of students have already re-enrolled in case the academy does not reopen.

But the Simses fear the kids who attended their academy won’t make it in other district and county programs, and many of their former students agree. Both Greenwood and Player, the school board president, say they hope the family finds a way to reopen the academy.

"There’s nothing like it because the Simses have that family atmosphere," says Greenwood. "They did a service to the district, and nobody’s denying that. . . . You’re not going to find another family in the state like this family."

Veronica Alejandre, 15, doesn’t want to go anywhere else. Until the Simses’ school, she was always cutting class because she couldn’t understand the work.

"I was really having hecka problems at the other schools. (The Simses) really cared about us and wanted us to do better," Veronica said.

"I don’t know what we’re going to do," said her mother, Tina Narez, who wants to help her daughter with her school work but cannot read or write. "I don’t know what’s going to happen to her."

Emmanuel Sims is the family’s next-to-oldest brother. He came from his home in Minnesota for over 10 months to try to help save the school. He calls the Iron Triangle, where the school was located and where many of its students live, a diamond-maker. He says if you can grow up inside it withstanding the pressures of drugs, gangs and violence, you’ll turn your life into something priceless.

Can the kids who attended the Barbara Alexander Academy become diamonds without it? Many don’t know. The Simses don’t either. So for the moment at least, as their mother wanted, they will just keep going.