Fri04182014

News

BTW is rooted in community, Obama fits in

Forty-eight hours after President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address to Booker T. Washington’s Class of 2011, the neighborhood surrounding the South Memphis school still reverberated from the energy. by Tony Jones
Special to the Tri-State Defender

Forty-eight hours after President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address to Booker T. Washington’s Class of 2011, the sidewalks, stores, nooks and crannies of the neighborhood surrounding the South Memphis school still reverberated from the energy.


D.J. Rogers (left) and Demarcus Humphrey after just graduating from the fifth grade and Georgia Avenue Elementary School. (Photos by Tyrone P. Easley)


BTW Class of 2014 student Christopher Nettles (foreground), accompanied by a friend, heads to work.


Dennis Thomas, with his son, Gus, and daughter, Skye, both students at Bethel Grove Elementary School. Said Thomas, BTW reflects the family life people don’t see enough of when they think of the Foote Homes.”


First Baptist Church-Lauderdale, under the direction of the Rev. Noel G. L. Hutchinson Jr., is a longtime supporter of Booker T. Washington High School and the surrounding neighborhood.

Here in one of the city’s most economically distressed neighborhoods, every statistical connotation about poverty – real and near – can be found.

And now that the 44th President of the United States literally has touched each of the school’s most recent graduates, the neighborhood surrounding BTW and those graduates have become points of measurement for determining just how far one can go with a boost from presidential glow.

Wednesday was just a regular day, except that everywhere you looked gold T-shirts colored the afternoon, signaling the pride in BTW earning President Obama’s visit by coming out tops in the nation in the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge.

School was just getting out, people were coming out on porches in anticipation of their children, the mailman was having a good chat up with a group of ladies who were passing the day, and one really loud car with a look often associated with undesireable elements was pulling out of a driveway.

Tashner Dixon says the young people in the neighborhood now have a new bar for what’s hip.

“It’s good he (President Obama) came because it put a lot of hope in the kids around here,” she said.

Angela Jordan, “Booker T, Class of ’83,” said, “I’m about to bust (with pride)! My aunt graduated from BTW in 1926, so you can imagine how she feels. She called me not too long ago thinking the school was being closed down. This really means something. People think that kids from around here aren’t going to amount to nothing, but yes we can,” she beamed, noting the 30 percent rise in BTW’s graduation rate that even Bloomberg News reported.

“Class of 2014,” said Christopher Nettles, “but I can’t talk now! I got to go to work!” Quickly, but politely, he blurted over his shoulder, “Ain’t no way to describe how I feel. It’s motivated the whole school.”

Demarcus Humphrey and D.J. Rogers happened by. Earlier in the day, they’d graduated from the 5th grade class at nearby Georgia Avenue Elementary School. And with obvious satisfaction they broke down into a simple sentence what the BTW event was about: “BTW won and that’s why the president came here.”

While others near and far are learning of BTW’s success story, 14-year-old Douglas Wadlington – “Class of 2014!” – says he learned on his first day at school that BTW is no joke. Sporting neat, curly dreads, neatly dressed and polite, the quiet and respectfully speaking young man is a music major claiming a 4.0 GPA.

“I wasn’t that happy when I first found out that I was going to be going to BTW,” he said. “I grew up here, I went to Vance Middle, but when I got there I found out that there was a lot more going on than people believe. People look down on us, but the president coming here proves that we are nothing to play with.”

It would help, he said, if there were more after-school activities to cut down on candidates for gang recruitment. “Give us something positive to do.”

Ninth-grade honor roll student Brianna Stewart came ambling across the street wearing a huge smile, pink T-shirt and BTW green jogging shorts. (Not sagging by the way.) A student-athlete, she said the success of the Class of 2011 would be reflected in her pursuit of own goals – cosmetology and gaining scholarships in track and basketball.

“I had just recently gotten into some trouble, but this event gave me a mindset to focus more. It reminded me that focusing on these boys and stuff isn’t going to get me anywhere,” she said.

“I’m just trying to focus on my schoolwork and reaching my goals so I can do good in life and get out of Memphis.”

Driving up after retrieving six-year old Gus, and 10-year-old Skye from Bethel Grove Elementary, Dennis Thomas said BTW reflects the family life people don’t see enough of when they think of the Foote Homes, but then he said, “this is the quiet side, there’s a war on the other side.”

Less than five minutes from BTW await a community support crew eager to create tangible action. At Mustard Seed, Inc., a community computer resource center next door to the famed Corner Club gathering spot, retiring director Betty Fitzgerald said traffic at the centered had slowed of late, but the president’s visit perked her up too.

“Oh, you could feel it everywhere,” she said. “And I hope it will get more people to understand that we are here for them, to connect them in any way they need, and it’s all free. They can do job searches, receive help with resumes, send faxes, whatever they need. We’re right here, but they have got to come through the door.”

Incoming-director William Salley teaches adult computer classes and like Fitzgerald is a member of First Baptist Church-Lauderdale, the center’s sponsor.

“We had a young man who came in crying, saying that the graduation had motivated him to doing better and getting out of this neighborhood. So how do you keep that initiative going? I think there has to be relevance for people,” he said.

“Young people have to see the benefit of education, and in today’s world they have to see it quickly, and that’s what the event did. Now I hope that the example they set will inspire more adults to moving forward. We’re here ready to help them.”

In a direct line across Porter Street, staff outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Transition Academy sat watch over the last trickle of students leaving for the day. Part of the Memphis City Schools since 2008, the academy is the state’s only transition school designed to take students from the law-breaking path to reentering the regular school system.

One hundred percent of the class completed their training this year. Operating on a year-round, revolving schedule, the hope here is that BTW’s example will help a basic truth take root: You can’t race to the top if you keep fouling out of the game.

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