Making the grade: A new school and committed mentor lead St. Paul teen to success


It was fourth period, the most dreaded period of my eighth grade year – math. I was seated as always in the front of the classroom because my teacher, Mr. Hirsch, knew that my favorite time to begin talking was during the lesson when he stood beside the overhead explaining equations and formulas, all those x’s and y’s.

ThreeSixty Journalism is nonprofit youth journalism program based at the University of St Thomas in St. Paul. It is committed to bringing diverse voices into journalism and related professions and to using intense, personal instruction in the craft and principles of journalism to strengthen the civic literacy, writing skills and college-readiness of Minnesota teens.

The trouble was I had stopped caring about math once I got past the basics of add, subtract, multiply and divide. So I would zone out. After I got bored I would start to talk to Marcus who sat across from me. If that failed, I would make wisecracks after every thing that Mr. Hirsch said.

So once again I would get sent down to Mr. Kos, “the detention man.” I would say nine times out of ten I would meet one of my friends there – Justin, Kentrell, Theotis, or Shawn. I didn’t really mind it because it was better then having to be bored and lost in class. Plus we would do a variety of things, my favorite being picking up trash from the playground. I may not have been contributing to my own education but I was contributing to the cleanliness of the school.

This was a typical day my eighth grade year, fooling around because I had fallen too far behind to be able to comprehend my lessons. What I did not realize then is that my friends and I were digging deeper holes for ourselves. Being African-American males, the odds were already stacked against us, and our path was a sure way right into a book of negative statistics.

I looked them up for this article: Only 41 percent of African American students in Minnesota graduate from high school after four years. This is about the same for Latinos and Native Americans. But 81 percent of white students graduate on time.

To figure this out I pulled from my personal experience and the knowledge of people who have devoted their lives to keeping kids like me in school.

Willie Bridges, senior analyst for the Hennepin County district attorney’s office, has worked to prevent truancy for 27 years. He says that a big problem is that there is a lack of support from families.

“This lack of a support system causes kids to feel as if they are not cared about, especially if they’re already struggling,” he said.

My mother cared a lot about my education, but she was often gone because she was a live-in nurse. Most evenings I was home alone so I played video games, hung out with my cousin outside, and there was no one to keep me in line and on my homework.

Along those lines come expectations, and they can come from teachers, Bridges told me. “If a kid has at least that one teacher who is behind them, pushes them a little further, wants just that little bit more out of them, that could be the little motivation that can lead the student to success,” he said.

Mr. John Jubenville, a social worker, and Mr. Mark Kos, had the greatest impact on me at my school. I was constantly with them because of my behavior, but they saw something more in me. Once after I had shown Mr. Jubenville a piece that I had written he said, “Edwin, you are a troublemaker indeed, but you are one of the smartest and gifted troublemakers I have ever met.”

While I was in detention one afternoon Mr. Kos observed that I was writing poetry and he asked if he could read it after I was done. After he read it he asked if I had other pieces, and he read those as well. On my graduation day he came up to me and showed me all the pieces I had written and told me that he would be looking for my further works.

Support alone isn’t enough, though. According to the experts I talked to, a lot of students who drop out don’t understand the important concepts and fall so far behind that they think they can never catch up.

This was the case for me in math. Because I would constantly distract myself in class or when I would attempt to do my homework, I could not understand what was going on.

This began to change my freshman year after we moved to St. Paul and I started at Twin Cities Academy High School. In the beginning, I still had my procrastinating ways. I began to slowly fall behind again. What made a difference was that this school is very small, with less than 200 students.

Teachers quickly caught on to the pattern of my falling grades and began to take action. I was required to go to office hours and meet with my advisor weekly. This maintained Ds and Cs, but what really made a difference was my second semester when my mentor Don Johnson stepped in.

Don is an African-American attorney who has worked in the legal system with families and juveniles for 33 years. He has worked with truancy cases for seven years. He told me that poverty causes a lot of teens to drop out of school.

“When you’re looking at poverty, you’re looking at instability. Your body’s not getting the amount of nutrition it needs to concentrate, and there’s also the component of feeling as if you don’t belong, a feeling that no one can relate to you,” Don said.

I’ve known Don since I was seven years old, but we had lost contact my eighth grade year. We got back in contact when I moved to St. Paul. When he found out that my grades weren’t good, he suggested that I stay at his house on weeknights so he could help me get my grades up.

At Don’s house, distractions are very few. When it is homework time, it is homework time, and he makes sure that it gets done. By the end of freshman year I managed to get my grades up to Bs and Cs. By sophomore year, I had As and Bs – with a 3.65 GPA for the year. “A well-loved child is a well-educated child” is the motto Don lives by.

Everybody I’ve talked to, all the experts, even my friends, told me that motivation is essential for success in school.

What began to motivate me freshman year were my peers. At Twin Cities Academy, it’s hard to find a slacker. I would go to one of my friends – usually African-American – and ask, “Did you do the homework?” The common response would be, “Of course I did!”

I did not want to be the only kid who is not handed his diploma at the end of four years. I wanted to be successful just like them. I also want to make my mom proud. I don’t want to be filling out papers and waiting in line for welfare. I want to look at myself and say I put all I could into my education.

I think about my friends from Minneapolis who haven’t stayed in school. They didn’t have somebody on their back, making sure they stayed in school. They have negative influences that pull them away. I hope they can find that person who can jump into their life and take hold of them before it’s too late.