"Yes, ma'am," the boy answers sheepishly.
This is not a military academy or even an ultra-strict parochial school. It is Recovering the Gifted Child Academy, a unique experiment in public education on Chicago's west side, with three full-time teachers and 45 students in grades 5 through 8. Momma Hawk—whose real name is Corla Hawkins—founded the school in 1990 to rescue kids who, despite high aptitude scores in early grades, fall behind because they are chronically truant, frequently suspended for bad behavior or distracted by troubles at home. By keeping the students from 8:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. and holding classes on Saturdays, Hawkins has been able to raise math and reading levels two to three grades within the first year. Word has spread: 95 students are on the waiting list. "It has just grown like a mustard seed," says Dr. Warren Franczyk, principal of Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School, where the academy is housed (though there is little interaction between the schools' students). "There's a self-esteem in those children we didn't see before."
Momma Hawk's academy anchors a neighborhood where drug addicts slump in doorways, drunks weave along the streets, and few children escape parental neglect. But here, with a mix of tough love and innovative teaching, she turns lives around. All but two of the 65 students who have attended the academy for four years have gone on to finish high school—a major achievement in a school district with a dropout rate over 50 percent. (Hawkins doesn't expel students, but some leave voluntarily.) To graduate, students must read above eighth-grade level, pass an oral exam and perform 200 hours of community service. "Every child is a gift from God," says Hawkins, 47, an inner-city teacher for nearly 24 years, "and our job as teachers is to find the gift in each."
Hawkins will go to great lengths to rescue the gifts each child offers, even negotiating with neighborhood gang leaders to keep their hands off her students. "We like what Momma Hawk is doing in the community," says 20-year-old Rasheed Jones, a leader in the Imperials gang. "If I see her students hanging out with gang members, I inform Momma Hawk. Me and Momma Hawk have a relationship." Jones's sister was valedictorian at RGC in 1995.
Until 1990, Hawkins was a fifth-grade teacher who bristled each year when students arrived in her class unable to recognize fractions or write in cursive. She was especially frustrated because many had shown high aptitude on standardized tests in earlier grades. "I asked myself," she says, "how can a child go from gifted to stupid?"
Hawkins concluded that the students weren't failures; teachers were failing them. When a student is unruly, for instance, "the teacher's first reaction is to get him out of the class instead of saying maybe this child doesn't have anybody," she says. Always a maverick—she often took students home, fed them and made them clothes—she pleaded with her principal at Bethune Elementary to let her try a new approach. He acceded, but the two kept the experiment from school officials for four years, until Hawkins began to receive community awards for her work. "I felt I could take the dysfunctional "family structure these children were used to and replace it with a new family structure that stresses success, personal achievement and self-esteem," she says. Hawkins even pledged to cover start-up costs with her $30,000-a-year salary. "I no longer felt worthy of accepting a paycheck from a system that produced so many illiterates," she explains. The principal took her up on that; for the first two years, Hawkins donated up to 70 percent of her salary to keep her little academy going (she lived off a modest inheritance from her husband and moved in with a friend). In 1992 she formed the Recovering the Gifted Child Foundation to help raise money. Seventy-three percent of the school's funding—some $80,000 annually—now comes from private donations, the rest from public funds.
Any similarities between Hawkins's academy and the rest of the public school system end at RGC's entrance. While the academy occupies a wing of Bethune Elementary, it is a separate operation: Hawkins admits students, hires staff and designs the curriculum and requirements. Students wear uniforms, are encouraged to read the Bible during lunch and call teachers Aunt, Uncle and Grandma. They start the day with a hot breakfast and a rousing chorus of "This Is the Day the Lord Has Made." They write their assignments on donated computers and practice reading aloud in front of a video camera that Hawkins contributed. There are even a washer and dryer on the premises. "I tell my children, I don't care if you have one shirt and one pair of pants. If your momma won't wash your clothes or can't, you can come to school early and do it," she says. "You see, I'm an excuse-buster."
Besides running the academy, Hawkins teaches math and science, relating both to everyday life. "Let's take a shopping trip," she announces one afternoon to her math class. "My boyfriend gave me $3,000, and he said, 'Baby, go out and get something so you can look soooo fine.' " The 10 children all giggle. "So I go to BBBW, the Big Beautiful Black Woman store, and I see a dress I want for $699. How much do I have left?" Several hands shoot up, vying to be first with the answer.
At RGC, life skills receive as much priority as academics. Students learn entrepreneurship—how to write a business plan, open a store, market products and balance accounts—by running 14 clothing and crafts shops, open to the public, at the school's mini-mall. "Welfare?" she snaps when one student mentions the subject. "I wasn't aware that was a form of employment. I am training you to be a success."
By her own actions, Hawkins stresses the importance of personal responsibility. "I run my school based on a corporate model. Our school day ends at 5 p.m., not 3 p.m., because that's when the business day usually ends," she says. The extended hours also help students to catch up with their peers. Students punch in and out on a time clock and eat dinner—paid for from the academy's budget—before they go home. Hawkins insists they come to school "regardless of minor illness." SWAT-like, she has been known to show up with the whole RGC student body at the home of a student she suspects is playing hooky. Anna White, a Cook County Hospital clerk whose 12-year-old daughter Nicole attends RGC, appreciates Hawkins's strict discipline. She credits Hawkins with curing Nicole's "flip lip" and for raising her math scores. "When she's with Momma Hawk," White says, "I know I don't have to worry about her."
High moral standards are also a large part of the school's message. Straddling the law, Hawkins, a devout Christian, asks students to stand at lunchtime and recite passages from the Bible. She encourages them to pray and directs them in a gospel choir. "I make no apologies for who I am," she says. "People bring the devil into the public schools every day. Do you think I'm going to leave Christ at the door?" Hawkins maintains she doesn't proselytize. "The law says you can't teach religion. It doesn't say children can't read out of the Bible or pray from the heart," she says. "I don't care what they call God—Jehovah, Allah or Buddha. I teach values. You respect your family. You don't steal. You love your neighbor. And you wait for sex until marriage." No student at RGC has gotten pregnant or been arrested.
Success has kept critics at bay. "I have no criticism of someone who tries to teach our children values and morals," says Chicago Schools Chief Paul Vallas. "She's a religious woman, and her convictions are rubbing off." Kids are aware of the empathy behind her bluster. "Corla is so successful because she is so human," says technical journal editor Kally Fraser, who is on the RGC foundation's 12-member board. "She's not on a pedestal. She feels things deeply. She hurts."
The fourth of eight children born to Delilar and Thomas Powell, Hawkins was a rule breaker like the kids she tries to help. Her mother, 74, was a registered nurse; her father, 76, a machinist, was a deacon at their church. Hawkins excelled in school, but to her parents' disappointment, "I always got U in conduct, for unsatisfactory," she says. "I had an attitude problem."
At 18, she volunteered for the Navy but was discharged, honorably, after eight weeks. "I couldn't take all that authority," she says. In 1969 she married mail-room supervisor James Wilson. In 1973, after having two kids, she earned a B.S. in business education from Chicago State University. (Both children are now married: Lynne Taylor, 27, is a cosmetology teacher; James, 25, is a machinist.)
As a working parent, Hawkins kept a tight rein on her own kids. Once, when she caught her son and daughter sneaking a cigarette, "she made us sit in a car and smoke the whole pack," recalls Lynne. "I never smoked again." Like her students, Hawkins has faced many personal struggles. At 28, she survived a near-fatal case of uterine cancer. Four years later doctors removed a malignant tumor from her left breast, and her marriage collapsed. "When I got sick," she says, "my husband became physically abusive to the point where I couldn't take it anymore." They separated in 1979, and Wilson died of brain cancer in 1983.
That year, severely depressed over her personal life and professional frustrations, Hawkins attempted suicide by taking an overdose of the antidepressant Thorazine—which a doctor had prescribed—and ended up in a psychiatric ward for four months. While recuperating, Hawkins says, she had a transforming experience: "God gave me a dream—to take care of children of rejection. I literally saw myself going around the world hugging and loving children nobody else wanted."
Since then, Hawkins has legally adopted two children: Beverly, rescued from an abusive home when she was 18 months old; and Lacole, whose father had died when she was 13, leaving her homeless. Now 10, Beverly is an honors student at RGC and an aspiring ice skater. Lacole, 18, is a high school senior who plans to study theater in college. Hawkins has also opened her home, in a middle-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, to RGC students who need a refuge. Says sixth-grader Otha Jefferson, who stays most nights there: "Momma Hawk's been like a real mother to me. I love this school, and I never want to leave it."
In the future, more students will have the advantage of Hawkins's attention. This past September, the Chicago school administration designated RGC as a "small school" of its own, making it eligible for an additional $30,000 a year in state and city funding.
But Hawkins is just getting started. For her next project—Momma's Nest, a combined school and shelter for neglected children—she estimates she needs about $15 million. Such funding may be a distant dream, but Hawkins has already picked the site, an abandoned commercial building close to the school. "I have found," she says, "if you have faith, you can do anything."
MOMMA HAWK LINES UP HER STUDENTS like a class of West Point plebes. An imposing figure, she moves swiftly down the line, collecting the previous day's homework. Suddenly she stops; one boy has handed her his work on a crumpled sheet of paper. "What kind of paper is that? This isn't Pig Pen University," she thunders, dangling the offending assignment in front of him. "You are a future leader of our country. You will do this paper over NOW!"