Rashawn, 17, admits he didn’t always do the right thing.
“It was easy to give in to peer pressure. I had to learn the hard way,” he said, sitting in a classroom just before lunch. “I had to learn responsibility and repercussions. I have ADHD but now I’ve learned how to control it. At one point I was a follower. Now I just want to graduate.”
He thinks he might go to a community college and then enter the Air Force or Coast Guard. He likes to cook and is considering studying culinary arts.
“I don’t miss a day here,” he said of his school, smiling broadly. “I have 4 Bs and 2 As. I just focus and tune out the negativity.”
Kum’s work is informed by her own past. She knows what it’s like to be treated as an outcast. She was born in Guyana, South America and when her family moved to the U.S., she was 16 and found her teenage peers didn’t easily accept her.
Later, while working on her doctorate she shadowed Shirley Thornton, then California Deputy State Superintendent for Education over Special Education.
“I followed her around the country and she would often start speeches with ‘What’s so special about special education?’” Kum remembered. “She asked audiences if special education was so special, why weren’t their children in it.”
At the time, Kum was deeply moved by the theories of some black scholars who addressed the disproportionate rate at which black students, particularly black males, are diagnosed as having special needs. Scholars such as John Hope and Ron Karenga have said there is nothing wrong with black children, but instead that they are taught by teachers who are culturally different and culturally insensitive to them. These scholars site the special education diagnosis as a pipeline to send black children to prison.
Kum was convinced there was a better way to teach all children.
“My dream was to create a full service school. We keep diagnosing the children; we should diagnose the environment and treat the community,” said Kum. “My dreams came true when I could buy a school.”
She doles out love but expects students to learn responsibility too. They attend school 11 months out of a year and there’s a strict dress code.
Students have gone on to college, entered cosmetology school and obtained apprenticeships. The Village would have a 100% graduation rate, except for one student who left prematurely. But, Kum noted, happily, “He returned recently. He was homeless and we had to put him in a hotel and we will find him housing.”
You could say that the young man’s diploma will help Kum reach that 100% rate. But for Kum, most important is that a diploma will help the student have a better chance at life and his return gives her and her staff more time to help shape his future.
(Shown in photo: Dawn Kum with student, Rashawn Brown. Photographer: Gina Ford)