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Former basketball pro sends inner-city kids to prep school

Happy Hairston exudes that relaxed confidence of a very good athlete - or lawyer or businessman - that effortlessly commands a room with his easy presence.

He certainly isn't the only fellow to have pulled up to Windward School in a Mercedes sedan, silk kerchief in the breast pocket of his dark, European-cut suit. It's that kind of a school. Very selective, very expensive.

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But as the new school year starts at this private, college-prep academy, Mr. Hairston stands out just the same. Note how Tracye Duckett's demeanor brightens when she spots him in the lobby, even as he needles her about which colleges she is applying to.

Tracye is one of almost 40 bright, highly motivated black students Hairston has placed in elite private schools all over Los Angeles this year. Her parents could never have met the $5,100-a-year tuition.

Happy Hairston, a forward with the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team until 1975, has spent more than $50,000 of his own money since 1979 and raised much more to put promising kids through private schools.

The Happy Hairston Youth Foundation pays tuition for these students and for whatever else they need. A van picks them up in the morning. There is a foundation account at a local clothing store. One of Hairston's Rotary Club colleagues donates dental work.

And when one of Hairston's young charges is invited to a birthday party for a school friend and can't afford the kind of gift the other kids are bringing, Hairston says, ''come see me.''

''Here's what I provide,'' he says in his office, family-style pictures of the students on the walls. ''I think a lot of kids in single-parent families (which most of the students he sponsors are) look on me as a surrogate father. And that's all I ask.''

His family is growing fast. The students the foundation places may nearly double next year if its October fund-raising dinner goes as expected.

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Hairston doesn't need to recruit students. Parents call him.

''If there is a nucleus of families in the inner city who want a good education for their kids, it's a kind of fraternity,'' he explains. ''They know who they are.''

The foundation has such a nucleus, beginning with the three parents who drive the vans every school day. And students sometimes bring an academically inclined friend from the neighborhood along on a foundation field trip.

When someone new wants a shot at a private-school education, Hairston interviews them, gives them the school's admissions test, takes them to the school, and figures out what the parents can afford to pay by the month. In most cases, ''thirty dollars would be high,'' he says. The foundation picks up the rest.

''I like the kids everyone would like,'' he says. He seeks disciplined students with respectful manners. ''If the kids can't handle that, that's where we part company.''

Hairston grew up in Harlem, without ever seeing so much as a picture of his father. And like most of the single mothers whose children he puts through school, his mother was tough on him. When he missed earning a B average one semester in his junior year of high school, she pulled him from the basketball team. He was back the next semester.

At New York University, he entered a much more sophisticated world than the one he knew growing up. He polished up his grammar, polished up his manners, and became more sophisticated himself.

Ever since, his dream has been to get students from the inner city into the kind of schools where they can start college with the advantages some of his NYU classmates had.

One of the things Hairston asks prospective students is whether they are prepared to step into schools with very few other blacks. They must also face being poor in schools where most are well off.

Tracye Duckett, a senior, is starting her third year at Windward School. Everyone is very friendly here, greets her in the hall, and she has friends. But she was very quiet her first year here, she says. ''At first, I felt like people were looking at me. And people here have money.'' At school, she says, most seniors have their own cars, and drive to get together. She doesn't.

But by her second year she was more comfortable, though most of her close friends are still the kids in her home neighborhood.

There she listens to her peers having fun in the street every night while she and her younger sister (a freshman at Windward) study. Her grade point average was 3.8 last year.

In most cases, Hairston tries to get students as early as possible. After fourth grade, many are already too far behind to pass private school admissions tests, and it becomes harder to, in Hairston's phrase, ''hose the street off the kid.''

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