In the spring of 1997, Glen Whitfield, a math and science teacher at a safe school, was talking to a small group of seniors about applying for college. One student, Paul Anderson, threw down the gauntlet.
“Paul stood up and said, ‘You are just trying to sell us pipe dreams. We’ve all been kicked out of school. You can’t get me and none of these other people in [college]. No one wants us.'”
Whitfield’s response: “I told Paul he would be the first person I got into school.”
And he was. Today, Anderson is a sophomore at Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss. He was accepted at five colleges, but chose Rust because relatives live nearby and, he says, “I wanted to get out of town.”
Anderson is not alone in that accomplishment. In 1997, the year he graduated from an alternative school run by Ada S. McKinley Community Services, nine McKinley students enrolled in college, Whitfield reports. The next year, 14 enrolled; half had been in McKinley’s program for disruptive students, half in its program for dropouts.
Whitfield, who teaches at McKinley’s Lakeside campus, had prepared the seniors for the ACT and SAT college entrance exams and had arranged for them to visit at least eight colleges. “They knew there were options for them, and they knew that those options were based upon their performance, so they performed,” he says.
All of last year’s graduates who went on to college received financial aid and/or scholarships. Two received academic scholarships—one for $80,000 and one for $100,000—to St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., Whitfield notes with pride.
Both Whitfield and Anderson attribute Anderson’s success at McKinley to the individualized teaching alternative schools can provide.
“At McKinley, they explain things to you,” Anderson recalls. “At South Shore, they give you class work to do at home. If it’s right, it’s right. If it’s wrong, they don’t go over it with you.”
Anderson says he did his assignments at South Shore High but got “most of it messed up, because I didn’t really know what to do.” He earned C’s and D’s but says that had he stayed there, “I probably wouldn’t have graduated.”
Whitfield, a former research chemist who joined McKinley in late 1996, believes that most of the students who end up in his classes can learn just fine. Their problem, he says, is the large schools they attended.
“It has to do with connecting with our kids and reaching them,” he explains. “If you have a class size of 35 to 50 students, and the bulk of those students want to chant raps and don’t want to engage, and if you have to maintain control of the class 80 percent of the time, that only leaves 20 percent of the time to teach and learn how each of the students learns. So you never reach that student. You never find the students who may have the greatest amount of ability—but no one guided or nurtured them or cultivated their skills.
“What I had an opportunity to do was to nurture and cultivate Paul’s skills and to show him that not only was he as bright as anyone else, but brighter than most and that anything he wanted to do, he could do.”
Setting an example
Soon, Whitfield will practice what he preaches; he plans to leave McKinley in June to pursue his own dream of becoming a doctor. His first attempt was interrupted after a year of medical school, when he broke his neck in an automobile accident. He then worked as a research associate for two years but decided he would rather “connect with the kids in my community, because I felt … things could not be as bad as I had seen in the media.”
Whitfield hooked up with McKinley’s legendary educational services director, Silas Purnell, whom he calls “the guru of financial aid. … He has placed more than 40,000 minority students in colleges across this country.” Whitfield helped minority students get into medical and law schools and graduate programs. Purnell then recommended him for of teacher and college liaison at McKinley’s Lakeside school.
Anderson says that when he started at Lakeside, “I had the same attitude as I did at South Shore—just learn what I got to learn and be done with it. At Lakeside, they showed me more, that you could learn more.”
Anderson was kicked out of South Shore in January 1996, midway through his junior year. “I got put out for fighting too many times,” he says.
After 15 weeks at McKinley, he could have returned to South Shore. His behavior had improved, he says, and he had passed his courses. But he chose to stay because the staff “treat you like one of their kids. They want you to achieve in life.”
Anderson also benefits from a large extended family and a mother who is a “saint,” says Whitfield.
But the teacher maintains that even students with less-than-ideal family situations can be helped. “If you have a bright student—no matter how negative the home environment—if that student knows that you are committed to them and committed to creating an opportunity for them, they will work for you. They will get frustrated, and they will show you their frustration, but ultimately, they will do what you want them to do.”
Whitfield says he recognized Paul’s “innate brightness” when the student adopted the role of Mr. Fixit at the school. “Whenever there was a problem or there was something wrong, [Paul] was the first person who wanted to address it—whether it was a problem with a door lock or problem with a furnace. And I said, ‘If you got these kind of problem-solving skills, then you have great skills. Because to be a problem solver, you have to think about things.'”
“And so we began to look at geometry from a different perspective. We began to approach it from a logic perspective, and he prepared and anticipated the problems that were coming after we looked at most of the theorems and postulates.”
James Patrick, the South Shore disciplinarian who did the paperwork to get Anderson out of the school, says he’s not surprised that the young man went on to college. “If you get the [disruptive] student away from his friends and out of that element, they can start buckling down. You eliminate that peer pressure, and they can go ahead and act like a student.”
Patrick says Anderson has visited him several times since leaving South Shore. “Paul wanted me to know that he turned his life around.”
Anderson says his first three semesters at Rust went “very well.” Last fall, he took English, chemistry, computer repair and gym; he also received credit for tutoring students in trigonometry, chemistry and advanced algebra. (He is sitting out this semester for medical reasons.) He wants to be a computer technician when he graduates.
Anderson has returned to McKinley, too, to use his own story to encourage other students. Whitfield calls him “the best advertisement for college.”
“He tells them ‘I sat in that seat. I know most of you, and I know what you believe. You don’t believe that it can happen to you. But it can happen.'”