Beacon of Hope

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.)

As a for-profit institution, Beacon Hill is supported almost entirely by student tuition -- about $3000 per year per child. This figure contrasts sharply with other private schools in Dade: Miami Country Day School in Miami Shores, for instance, costs $6925 per year for elementary classes; tuition at Miami's Cushman School runs to $6375. Indeed, Liss says he's never made much money from the school and that some years he's had to funnel his own salary back into the venture. Teachers' wages also have remained low: Where an inexperienced first-year public elementary school teacher makes a starting annual salary of $26,500, Beacon Hill pays its first-year teachers just $13,000. But the wages haven't been a deterrent to committed employees. Several teachers and staff members have been at the school for more than a dozen years. And even with its modest facilities, the school has been accredited by the Association of Independent Schools of Florida, which, according to its president, requires a stringent peer review as part of its application process.

With their coffers more empty than full, school administrators have had to develop a flexible attitude toward payment of tuition, the argument being that it's better to have some money coming in than none at all. (Liss is not alone in this regard; a nearby parochial school allows parents to use payment booklets.) Parents can pay on a weekly, biweekly, monthly, or annual basis, whichever is convenient, administrators say. Liss notes that compared to past decades, the current roster of Beacon Hill families is probably having more difficulty making tuition payments. "We had serious problems there for a while where people weren't making a living," he says. "We kind of extended the balances that were due. These people -- I won't say cried on our shoulders -- they let you know what their problems are. So it got to the point where you help a little bit further."

For Liss, enrolling students from low-income families is not simply a calculated financial risk. It's also his way of cooperating with a community that has supported his school for so many years. "Sometimes you can't hurt the child," he says. "We are very lucky that most parents eventually pay the full tuition. And as long as we can make our ends meet, then we're okay."

Meloney Woods often makes her weekly tuition payments with the tips she makes waiting tables at Denny's in North Miami Beach. Her son, seventh-grader Clive, has attended Beacon Hill since kindergarten. "Sometimes she pays in quarters and dollar bills," says Beacon Hill's principal, Shirley Bara. "But she's never missed a payment. And, by gosh, her kids are going to college!"

Like many cash-strapped parents of Beacon Hill students, Woods says she is committed to her choice of a costly private school over a free public school despite the obvious financial difficulties. "It's hard," admits Woods, who moved from her native St. Kitts seventeen years ago and now lives in Carol City with her son and her husband, an auto repairman. "If I need another pair of shoes, I see that I have two pairs already and tell myself I don't need another pair. You can see somebody blow $70 on the street each week while their kids go to public school. My mother taught me this: She always says, 'If you have a kid, you take care of him. You never turn your back on him. The most important thing you can give your kid is manners and education.' And I start from there."

Even though her son has never gone to a public school, Woods maintains that private school is better than public because it provides additional security and, she believes, offers a more rigorous academic education. "So many things are happening outside there in the public schools," she says. "Kids are fighting all over the place. They're looking after the kids at Beacon Hill. They make sure there is no fighting." It's a typical assumption made by Beacon Hill parents who have eschewed public schools entirely. Then again, many of those Beacon Hill parents who have tried public schools also cite the promise of safety and intensive academics. They decided in favor of private school, they say, after seeing that public schools weren't working out for their children.

Alice Williams says her son, a fifth-grader at Beacon Hill, labored with dyslexia and an assortment of reading disabilities but wasn't getting enough individual attention in his public elementary school, even though he was in a program for learning-disabled kids. "He had several substitutes one year and I couldn't get in touch with anyone who knew what was going on," Williams explains. "Everyone I spoke with, they basically had the attitude, 'We're just doing the best that we can.' He was suffering and his test scores fell way behind." Williams says her son has made more progress during the past year at Beacon Hill than he made "the whole time he was in public school," improving from Ds and Fs to honor-roll status.

Loreatha Burroughs also sent her son, Theron, to Beacon Hill in search of more academic guidance than the public schools had to offer. But she made this decision after some considerable soul-searching; after all, she's a sixth grade teacher for the Dade County Public Schools. "I used to be a firm believer in public education," Burroughs says. "But Theron's classrooms were crowded and he was not getting what I thought he should receive. He started kindergarten reading, and each year I noticed instead of progressing, he [fell behind]." Burroughs still has "a few qualms" about Beacon Hill -- namely, that it lacks some programs and resources common in the public schools. "We offer so much more in the public schools," she says. "We have science fairs in the public schools, we have writing workshops for children, Saturday classes, remedial programs. And I'd really like Theron to be exposed to a lot of it." But, adds Burroughs, the smaller classes and intensive instruction are a worthwhile tradeoff.

Beacon Hill does boast a very low student-teacher ratio: about sixteen-to-one. (In contrast, the public schools average is 18.7-to-1, but schools spokesman Henry Fraind says most grade-school classes have ratios closer to 30-to-1.) Such manpower permits greater attention per student and helps the faculty cope with the school's growing population of troubled children. "Almost all new students are problem kids, and that's why they're here," says Bara, Beacon Hill's principal. "More than half [of the student body] have learning disabilities and discipline problems."

"Some of these kids, when they start off at Beacon Hill, you'd think they were retarded," comments Zelma Smith, who has taught at the school for 21 years and who was the first black teacher Liss hired. "But they're coming with community problems, environmental problems. And with a little loving and care, some are now on the honor roll." A lot of children, she says, are turned out of other schools. "They are children who would've got lost in public schools. These children need more loving and hugging than they get in the public schools. If a child acts up, instead of sending him to the office, you can spend more time seeing what's the matter."

Liss is quick to mention that Beacon Hill doesn't accept just anybody they can get. "We do not deliberately take that type of student," he says. "We don't take a student into a classroom unless that student is working close to the grade level. If they're working way behind but we have confidence we can help that student, then we may discuss with the parents the option of holding the child back a grade." (Similarly, Beacon Hill is more permissive than public schools in allowing accelerated students to skip grades.) "If we don't feel that we can do something for the student," Liss continues, "we don't accept them." According to Susan Wolff, Liss's daughter and the school's secretary, about "a handful" of students are denied enrollment every year.

Despite the disproportionate number of so-called problem students, classes at Beacon Hill are tame, and the children are generally well behaved. "I spend a lot of time counseling these children, letting them know it's important to behave properly," says fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Gladys Billings, a plump, stern-faced Jamaican woman who says she has taught for "thirty-odd years," most in her native country except for the five years she's been at Beacon Hill. "I let my students know that every pattern of misbehavior has consequences."

Billings's classroom is extremely tidy, its desks mercifully free of graffiti, the walls adorned with timeless classroom decorations: a diagram of photosynthesis, an anatomical drawing of the human digestive system, a map of the world, lists reminding students of good study habits and classroom behavior. Both the fourth- and fifth-graders share the space, a situation that is possible only because there are so few students in those grades: six fourth-graders and six fifth-graders.

Billings organizes the space by seating the grades back-to-back, facing opposite ends of the rectangular room, each with its own blackboard, and shuttling back and forth between the groups. On a recent morning, she began the day by getting the fifth-graders started on a quiet reading assignment, then jumped over to the fourth-graders for some mathematics. Once they were under way with problem-solving, she returned to the fifth-graders and led them through a group review of their math homework. In each instructional session, Billings made sure to include every student in the discussion at hand and forced each to participate in solving the math problems. Thus engaged, the classroom was calm. In an hour of instruction, Billings only had to raise her voice a couple of times to chastise a student for talking. And except for one boy Billings caught slipping a piece of candy into his mouth, the class was exceptionally disciplined. Three of her fifth-graders, she notes, came from public schools this past year. They had slipped far behind academically, but now are working at or close to their grade level. "I'm getting a response," she says. "There's nothing that satisfies me more than seeing progress."

Even with its unusually high percentage of public-school castoffs, Beacon Hill's scores on the Stanford Achievement Test, a standardized test given to children around the nation, are significantly higher than the public school system's average. In tests taken this past school year, for instance, Beacon Hill second-graders scored in the 51st percentile nationwide on the reading comprehension portion and 47 in the math applications section. By comparison, public school second-graders had scores of 31 on the reading and 36 on the math. Similarly, Beacon Hill's fourth-graders had a reading score of 47.5 and a math percentile of 62, compared with the public school's fourth-grade results of 34 and 40 respectively. Beacon Hill's testing superiority becomes even more pronounced when compared to the public schools in the North-Central Dade area from which many of its students come. In some results, Beacon Hill's median percentiles nearly double those of its neighboring public schools.

When asked to name his favorite thing about public school, twelve-year-old Dmetri draws a blank. He looks down at the floor of the empty classroom where he's come for an interview and shakes his head. Nothing. How about his least favorite thing about public school? "Fights every day," the fifth-grader says quickly, his lips tightening. And his favorite thing about Beacon Hill? "That you don't have to worry about fights," he says. "The surroundings are nice. Here you don't have to worry about anyone pulling anything out and cutting you."

While Irv Liss avoids making comparisons between his school and the services offered by the public school system, he prides himself on creating a carefully managed environment for the children. "We have a controlled situation: You don't have guns, you don't have knives, you don't have intruders," he says. "The kids don't worry about getting attacked by other children. If a child doesn't have to think about how he's going to protect himself, he can think about how he's going to learn."

It is the reputation of public schools as battlegrounds, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, that goes a long way toward bolstering the image of private schools like Beacon Hill as safe havens for young kids -- even though violence beyond the occasional fistfight is a rarity at the elementary school level. According to police files for several North Dade elementary schools in Beacon Hill's neighborhood, crime is not some kind of unofficial extracurricular activity. During this past school year, for instance, only one case of vandalism and one of larceny were reported at Scott Lake Elementary, which is located at 1160 NW 175th St. in North-Central Dade.

At the middle school level, the situation does get significantly worse. Carol City Middle School, for example, experienced dozens of reported crimes this past school year, including two incidences of aggravated battery, five assaults, four cases of larceny, five robberies, and five cases of weapons possession. (Liss, on the other hand, says the middle school grades at his Hollywood campus have experienced no crime of this sort.)

Peter Harden, principal of Bunche Park Elementary several blocks away from Beacon Hill, says the crime rate in the upper grades of the public school system taints the image of elementary schools. Still, he admits, the little crime that does arise in the hallways and classrooms of his school is a normal extension of the community outside. "Of course there's some violence," he says as he takes a visitor on a tour of Bunche Park's campus. "It's the same thing at Beacon Hill; it's not an island unto itself. You can't isolate it. Violence is widespread all over the country." The children, he says, bring to school the societal problems of their homes and neighborhoods, and little of an academic foundation. "You basically have to start from scratch with some of these kids," Harden says. "In Kendall and Coral Gables, they have computers and magazines in their home, and there's exposure to learning." Those homes, he adds, are learning environments that prepare and contribute to the child's school education.

But on this day at Bunche Park, there's no gunfire in the hallways, no rumbles in the bathrooms, no anarchy in the classrooms. Just a lot of little kids being little kids: standing in lines that aren't quite straight, whispering to each other in the back of the class.

Harden acknowledges the obvious benefits of a private school, which often can tailor programs to suit a child's needs. He points, for example, to Beacon Hill's early-morning care program that allows parents to drop off kids as early as 6:30 a.m. And he recognizes that a lower student-teacher ratio can only help those most in need of concentrated instruction. But he defends the value and diversity of the public school education. "It's all about needs," he says, walking into an exceptional-student education classroom where children with extreme physical and mental handicaps receive intensive daylong care and schooling. "Here are kids who can't feed themselves, who defecate on themselves," he says. "Beacon Hill can't fill that need." Farther down the hallway, he wanders through the school's "media center," where three dozen computers blink away, and into a large library that includes an electronic encyclopedia. "Does Beacon Hill have all this?" he asks.

Harden grows noticeably frustrated when asked to consider a commonly held notion: that a private school education is superior to that of a public school simply because it costs extra money. He believes this motivates many parents to send their children to private schools like Beacon Hill. "One thing [private school] parents won't own up to," he insists, "is that they want to keep up with the Joneses. You see somebody with a Cadillac and you want one, too. You see somebody else sending their kid to private school, you're going to break your neck to send your kid to private school. Whether or not you can afford it."

Liss sees nothing pretentious in the service he offers. He's just providing a family-run, down-to-earth schooling alternative that has become an educational mainstay of North Dade, particularly among the black communities. "I have been very well accepted in the neighborhood," he says. "I've put my life in this place. Most people would rather do something that pleases them. This happens to please me. That's why I'm still at the schools twelve to fourteen hours a day." Weekends and holidays included. Rather than lambaste the public schools system, he prefers to let the fact that Beacon Hill has survived for so long testify to its strengths and mission.

"Of all the schools I've seen in South Florida, that school is unique because of its population and the neighborhood it's serving," says Alan Osuch, president of the Association of Independent Schools of Florida, the accreditation organization of which Beacon Hill is a member.

Surprisingly, it was his search for a sedate career that led Liss to the arena of education. Born and raised in Philadelphia's Jewish ghetto, he had made a small fortune in that city's real estate and insurance business by the age of 29, when he moved to South Florida "to kind of semiretire," he says. But a heart attack at age 32 put him out of work entirely.

After Liss was hospitalized, it fell to his wife to become the family breadwinner. "I said to my wife," Liss recalls in an accent redolent of his birthplace, "I says, 'You know, if you want to continue living the life you are accustomed to, you have to do something.'" With her experience as a mother of three children and as an artist, she suggested opening a daycare center. Liss bought a one-acre parcel of land on NW 22nd Avenue and, ignoring his doctor's admonitions, threw himself into the project. The one-story, rectangular building that arose at that address in 1959 was Liss's design, and included a kitchen, an office, and three big classrooms. On April 4, 1959, the doors of Beacon Hill School opened and in walked its first class of twenty prekindergarteners and kindergarteners.

Before the first school year was out, Liss already had begun construction on a second building for more kindergarten space. The waiting list for admittance was growing long and Liss was restless. "You're looking at a fat old man," he says. "Back then I was young and full of vigor and full of, as they say, piss and vinegar." During those early years, he adds, his responsibilities ran from maintenance to bookkeeping to bus-driving to construction. "You did it all!" he exclaims. "You gotta make it work, and I was a workaholic."

Liss says that in 1963 Beacon Hill was the first private school in Dade to integrate. "Everybody was talking about it but they weren't integrating," he says. "Look, children are children. What the heck? When I was growing up in Philadelphia, that's what I knew. I went to school with everybody." The first black student, he recalls, was the daughter of a locally popular jazz singer who frequently performed at the hotels on Miami Beach. "I had expected problems but I think you gotta learn to live with yourself," Liss reflects. "In this particular case, it worked out well. A majority of parents would pat me on the back. But there was also the dark side of it."

Liss recalls how he began receiving anonymous threats by telephone. "At first I really was frightened about it. 'I'm going to kill you,' they'd say. They called me 'nigger lover,' 'you kike bastard,' that sort of thing. I can't even repeat some of the language that was used. Until finally I says to this one caller, 'What's your name?' And he wouldn't tell me. So I says, 'I know you're yellow because you got a streak running down your back.' He says, 'I'm going to come by the school and kill you, that's what I'm gonna do.' So I says, 'I'll tell you what. I'm going to do you a favor.' I says, 'I'm going to stand outside and let you take a shot at me.' Now keep in mind, I wasn't about 70 then. I was young, and when you're young you think you can take the world on." The man never came by the school as far as Liss knows, and with each semester more and more blacks moved into the neighborhood and into his school.

As the years progressed, Liss gradually added more grade levels and built more buildings. He opened the fifth grade this school year and plans to inaugurate a sixth grade this September. Meanwhile, plans are under way to erect another set of classrooms on the site.

And after 35 years, Liss has begun to contemplate the possibility -- as remote as it seems -- of retiring. Or, at least, of passing on the school to his kids or to a nonprofit community organization. Meanwhile, his attention is focused on more immediate concerns, such as the new classrooms and library he wants to build, and the computer system he wants to upgrade so that when his time comes to move on, he says, he "can leave behind a real fine institution."

Amid boxes and files stacked in a school hallway sits a pile of old wooden blocks, segments cut from a two-by-four. "I made those building blocks 35 years ago," Liss boasts. "Cutoffs from an old lumberyard." The blocks are now dark from years of handling in the dirty palms of toddlers and they might be overlooked as trash. But in them Liss sees something emblematic of his institution and his purpose. "If you do it right," he says, turning a block over in his hand, "look how long it will last.


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