Carlise Davenport, 71; An Educator Who Instilled Excellence

From a modest rowhouse in Petworth, Carlise James Davenport instilled a drive for excellence in generations of African American children.
From a modest rowhouse in Petworth, Carlise James Davenport instilled a drive for excellence in generations of African American children. (By Marvin T. Jones)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008

Carlise James Davenport, 71, founder of Tots Developmental Center in the District's Petworth community, died of a heart attack March 8 at her home in the District.

Relying on Mrs. Davenport's blend of stern discipline and loving care, Tots Developmental Center has taught the children of a number of prominent Washingtonians over the years, including former mayor Marion Barry and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Many of its early students have become parents of Tots students themselves.

"There's not another school like hers in the African American community," said a nephew, Marvin T. Jones.

Artis G. Hampshire-Cowan, a Howard University senior vice president, compared the care and attention her two children received at Tots to her own experience attending a one-room schoolhouse in rural Alabama. Mrs. Davenport, she pointed out, had teachers for each grade level, but both schools focused on discipline, hard work and academic excellence.

"She was personally engaged in the learning and development of every child," Hampshire-Cowan said. "And the children soared."

Another parent, Laura W. Murphy, had a similar experience. "Carlise Davenport was instrumental in developing my son's self-esteem and poise," said Murphy, whose son attended the center for five years. "She made children believe that they could accomplish any worthy goal if they knew how to compose themselves and pay attention."

Mrs. Davenport could be formidable. When parents dropped their children off at school in the morning, the youngsters were in her hands, and they were expected to meet the rules and expectations she had formulated. Parents were instructed to step aside.

At parent-teacher conferences, Hampshire-Cowan recalled, the parents of her 42 charges were seated in the same small chairs in which their children sat. Mrs. Davenport was the teacher.

She focused on the basics -- reading, writing, arithmetic -- buttressed by such social basics as good manners, neatness and personal discipline. Tots students wear uniforms and learn how to be comfortable speaking in public.

Hampshire-Cowan recalled that every Monday, Tots students were given 10 new words to learn. Their Monday night homework would be to write the words 10 times; Tuesday night, write down and memorize the definition; Wednesday night, use each word in a sentence; Thursday night, use the 10 unrelated words in a coherent paragraph. "And these were first-graders," Hampshire-Cowan recalled.

The educational philosophy and pedagogical techniques intrinsic to Tots Development Center had their origins in Mrs. Davenport's own experience growing up in the rural South. She was born on her parents' farm near Ahoskie, N.C., and grew up bagging corn meal for her father's grist mill.

Her parents encouraged her educational aspirations, but she never forgot being told by others that black children were lazy, that they slept in their clothes, that they couldn't read and write. According to her son, Clifford H. Davenport Sr., she vowed right then to start a school that would prove the naysayers wrong.

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