Beacon of Hope

Students who can't overcome the alienation of inner-city public schools are finding their thrill on Beacon Hill

A man of his age and girth probably shouldn't be doing this, but Irv Liss has something to prove. All 66 years and 250-plus pounds of him. He's standing in the playground of Beacon Hill, a private elementary school in North Dade, holding on to a steel, cactus-shaped climbing structure, and struggling to lift his leg onto the lowest rung of the apparatus. Liss built the piece with his own hands, along with the other equipment on the playground, back when he founded the school 35 years ago.

Ignoring protests of concern from his 41-year-old son, a handyman at the school, Liss slowly hoists himself onto the structure, which trembles under the stress. A little boy passing by the playground on his way to the bathroom stops to marvel at the sight. For a brief moment, as Liss's lower leg clears the ground, he looks as though he might topple backward. But with a grunt he successfully heaves himself onto the first rung and precariously balances his mass there, beaming. His smile resembles the grimace of a man tearing a bite from a tough slab of meat. "See?" he announces, patting the galvanized steel pipes with his meaty hands. "It's going to outlive us all."

This sentiment is a common refrain throughout Liss's tour of his school, located at 18001 NW 22nd Ave. in a neighborhood of modest single-family homes and low-income apartments, between Joe Robbie Stadium and the Palmetto Expressway. From a single acre of empty land in 1959, Liss has developed a sprawling seven-acre campus that includes a cluster of classroom buildings, expansive playing fields, shaded playgrounds, and two swimming pools. He knocks his fist on the wooden cabinets he built for the kitchen: "They are strong," he declares. "They are solid. They are there. We're still using them." In the cafeteria he instructs a visitor to stand on one of the wooden benches. "Does it give?" he asks proudly. "Not one bit! That's 35 years old." Even the stalls in the boys' bathroom are original. "And you want to know what? I built them," he brags, hoisting up the fading dark slacks that wrap around his expansive belly.

His statements are not only a reflection of a craftman's pride, they are the hopes of an educator who has seen his institution grow from a nursery school of twenty tots to a bustling academy of preschool, elementary, and middle school students spread across two campuses -- one at the original site on 22nd Avenue and the other, built in 1977, in Hollywood. (The North Dade campus has a student population of about 400, ranging from prekindergarten to fifth grade; the Hollywood school has classes for about 400 students in prekindergarten to eighth grade.) It is exactly this combination of moxie and idealism that has enabled Liss to chart a course for his school through the changing demographic landscape of North-Central Dade, the population of which has been transformed from predominantly Anglo to predominantly black.

Where once the student body was largely middle- to upper-middle class and white, today Beacon Hill's Dade campus is almost entirely middle- to lower-middle class and black, drawing students from Carol City, Opa-locka, and Liberty City. According to Liss, Beacon Hill was even the first private school to integrate back in the Sixties. It now claims to be the oldest predominantly black private school in Dade and, according to Liss, the only nonreligious private elementary school in the county whose student body is principally black.

Despite tuitions that are low in comparison to the top private schools around Dade, for some parents choosing Beacon Hill has meant a tough financial burden, forcing them to make sacrifices for their children's education. In some cases, it's a last chance: Beacon Hill, which itself could be described as financially modest, has developed a reputation for accepting students who have been left behind in the public school system.

The decision to go to a private school instead of a public school, of course, is in some ways a reflection of Beacon Hill's strengths. But the choice is also a stringent biting commentary on the weaknesses of Dade's public school system and on the commonly held perception that many public schools in black areas of the county are overcrowded, hostile wellsprings of crime, where academics are a distant concern.

Unlike the popular image of private schools as polished, wood-paneled mansions surrounded by luxurious, manicured lawns, there's nothing fancy about Beacon Hill. It has all the appearances of a shoestring operation. Remaindered swaths of carpet pad the hallways, worn to a tattered and threadbare finish. Walls are chipped and peeling. Even the front screen door is missing a handle. The school also lacks basic facilities: It has no library, no auditorium, not even a room exclusively devoted to art or music. The main office is essentially a glorified closet -- enough space for two desks sitting back to back and not much more. And among staff there's a lot of doubling up on duties: Liss's son, Arthur, functions as the school's handyman, swimming instructor, transportation supervisor, and emergency bus driver; his daughter, Susan Wolff, serves as secretary as well as summer-school director and de facto nurse -- she's Red Cross-certified. (Another son and a daughter of Liss work at the Hollywood campus as administrators and all-purpose staff.)

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