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At the age of 21 Dawn Kum moved to California to figure out what she wanted to be. A recent college grad, she was looking for a job as a dietician. Her uncle, a teacher, suggested she follow in his footsteps. Eventually, she got a job teaching at an elementary school in South Central Los Angeles.

“I found my calling,” said Kum, who today owns two schools dedicated to providing education for some students whose needs can’t be met by public schools.

Her sensibilities allow her to see what others can’t. “People have preconceived prejudices and biases about South Central, but I never experienced what they believe to be true. I had the most supportive parents there, because they were so appreciative of my dedication to their children,” said Kum.

A known gang leader and drug dealer lived across the street from the school. “I used to see him and say good morning to him every day. He made sure his kids were in my class. He said, ‘You are one of the few people who looks me in the eye and says good morning.’”

Today, in many ways, Kum is still looking into the eyes of the tough guys and winning them over with her sincerity and determination to help. But add to her attributes over 25 years of experience in education and a Doctor of Philosophy degree with a concentration in Education Policy and Program Development.

She is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Village Academy schools in Washington, D.C. and Prince George’s County, Md., where she is responsible for the education of middle and high school students considered to be some of the most challenging in the nation’s capital. She opened her first school in the district in 2007 and this year opened an all-boys school just outside of the city in Maryland. The curriculum is designed to serve district students identified as having learning disabilities and emotional disabilities.

“I believe it does take a village to raise a child, so I wanted to create that kind of holistic environment to support children,” said Kum.

The floors of her schools shine like mirrors and fresh flowers decorate the lobby. The students eat “family style” and food is organic and healthy. Students receive comprehensive therapeutic services such as counseling, psychological assessments, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy. Though students attend school 11 months of the year, those who want to work during the brief recess get help in filling out applications and securing jobs.

There are PSAT and SAT preparation seminars for students who want to go to college. Students also receive vocational training in addition to academic studies. They learn carpentry in the school’s wood shop and auto repair in their own garage. There’s a barber shop, where students can get haircuts and learn the profession from a master barber. They can also earn A+ (A Plus) IT certification, a basic program to become a computer technician. Through a partnership with the Marriott Bridges Program, students learn hotel jobs such as housekeeping and front desk receptionist.

Some students come to Kum from facilities where they have been placed because of involvement in criminal activities.

Sharon Brown, a parent whose son, Rashawn, will graduate from the Maryland school this year, was emotional when she spoke of how Village Academy saved her son.

“I just knew there was somebody who would help me,” said Brown, her eyes filling with tears and her voice choking. She has another son who is also in a school for children with special needs. Brown said, “I think God put people in my life who will help them.”

Before Kum accepted her son, the courts had sent Rashawn to a residential program that was a three and a half hour drive away in upstate Maryland, making it difficult for Brown to see him or attend any school events. Brown, a single parent, said the assigned public school in their zone “wouldn’t take” either of her sons.

“My experience at other schools is that teachers and principals don’t want to be bothered with children like mine,” she said.  “The staff (at Village Academy) loves Rashawn. He has accomplished a lot. At other schools, if Rashawn messed up, he was expelled. Here, teachers work with me. If he messes up, they will call me.”

Brown mentions with pride a grandfather clock and jewelry box Rashawn made for her in wood shop and gave to her on her last birthday.

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)