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Black Santa comes to town with an educational message

Black Santa turned out to be quite a dancer, not to mention an adept spinner of holiday soul records, so it's no surprise he stole the show Wednesday. But for those able to take their eyes off him, there was a bigger message at the event he deejayed inside Upstart Village on New Stine Road.

Besides just being a fun holiday party, the inaugural gathering focused on local efforts to launch a public charter school called Willie J. Frink College Prep. If supporters have their way, the school will focus on civic literacy, entrepreneurship and preparing for college.

Dozens of people present, including friends and family members of local hip hop dance club DAT Krew Academy, were informed about the proposal to start offering classes to kindergarten and transitional kinder through second grade, potentially up to eighth grade, beginning in 2023 at Upstart Village.

Organizers said it's time to try something new to improve the performance of Black students in California public schools. Data show that as a whole they test consistently below their grade levels in math, science and English.

"We are concerned. We know that education is going to close the gap," said organizer and local businesswoman Arleana Waller, decked out Wednesday in a Mrs. Claus suit with black tights and pink heels.

Education was the subtext of much of Wednesday's celebration — books were everywhere, the music stopped for a brief presentation on the Frink proposal and there was a group reading session. Nevertheless, it was a party to remember.

Black Santa, wearing a spiffy red suit and a full white beard, wasn't the only one tearing it up on the dance floor inside Upstart's ballroom. Young teens, toddlers and even parents joined him in the fun. There were also plenty of refreshments and rows of gift bags to take home.

"I would do this again," said Teneille Sanders, who showed up with her daughter Envy, co-captain of DAT Krew.

Another adult having a good time at the party, Kacy Ford, brought a half-dozen kids from her family's day care center.

"It's nice," she said, looking on as the dancing gathered momentum. She added that it seemed appropriate that Black Santa showed up, given that the crowd — much like the focus of the Frink school — was largely Black but not exclusively so.

The proposed school's co-founder, Christina Laster, said people of color will feel welcome at the school, including Hispanic and white children. Waller noted many of the students will likely come from southeast Bakersfield.

"We're not excluding anyone from coming to the school," Laster said.

Charter schools, public or not, can be a touchy subject, and it remains to be seen how far the proposal will advance. Organizers say they need to gather 150 signatures of support on a petition just now being circulated.

Already the proposal has netted grants, one a $50,000 check from the Silicon Schools Fund. Bakersfield philanthropists Ingrid and John-Paul "J.P." Lake have contributed $45,000 and offered as well a $45,000 matching grant.

Waller said organizers have hired an attorney and are working on budgets. They are petitioning the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District for permission to set up the school, which she said would initially enroll 150 students or more.

Even apart from the charter proposal, Wednesday's event included elements of educational improvement. The Kern Literacy Council made a pitch encouraging parents to spend at least 15 minutes per day reading to their children, a simple act shown to help the academic performance of young people.

"The earlier that parents can read with their kids, the better," said Laura Wolfe, who has served as executive director of the council since 2015.