19-year-old Mercedes Hanks, born and raised in Richmond's Gilpin Court public housing community, was class valedictorian of John Marshall High School, graduating with a 4.5 GPA. She feels her school didn't "in any way" prepare her for college. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Mercedes Hanks of Richmond is a 19-year-old sophomore at James Madison University. Before entering college, she was the 2014 valedictorian of John Marshall High School, where she graduated with a 4.5 grade point average. Her home since she was in fifth grade has been in the Gilpin Court public housing community, and she is the first in her immediate family to attend college. She’s also a young woman who pulls no punches. If you read our Top High Schools package in this month’s issue of the magazine, you know that already.
Mercedes is one of the six stellar students from the class of 2014 whom either reporter Mark Robinson or I interviewed for that package. It’s been my experience over many years of education writing that students are more than capable of diagnosing what works in a school and what doesn’t, what is of value and what isn’t, who believes in them and who doesn’t.
We opened our conversations with the six by asking whether their high schools had prepared them for their entry into higher education.
Mercedes was the one who said no.
She was the one who said her high school academics did not “in any way” prepare her for the rigor of college courses, who said she was a “math genius” in high school, but so far had gotten a B and a C in her math courses at James Madison University. This, she told me, was devastating.
She said this with no trace of anger or betrayal. Indeed, she praised several of her teachers. Instead, she sounded bewildered. She said culture shock may have added to the problem. She went from a high school where there are few white students to a college where there are few blacks.
“In high school, I was always the person to raise my hand, to speak for herself, but I didn’t do that at all in college,” she said in part of the interview that did not appear in the magazine. “I felt like what I had to say had no value.”
I keep thinking about this conversation. This is, in part, because of Mercedes’ candor and, in part, out of empathy for her loss of equilibrium. But it was also because the only student out of the six who said his or her high school academic experience offered inadequate preparation for the rigors of college was a Richmond Public Schools student. And I am a Richmond Public Schools parent.
I came to Richmond having written about public schools in Denver for many years. I spent one school year writing column after column from the inside of a struggling, low-performing high school, a Latino version of John Marshall. I saw up close the economic poverty of its students and the chaos it created in their lives. I saw the consequences of the abandonment of the middle class in the crumbling facilities and the limited number of course offerings. I saw the adult nonsense that seems to inhabit all bureaucracies: turf battles, paranoia, constant staff and administrative turnover, departmental silos and insufficient funding for critical support staff.
But I came to know excellent, inspiring teachers who went unrecognized, and tireless administrators trying to manage the demands of the central office, the teacher factions and the student crises, all while still being instructional leaders in their buildings. And best of all, I met bright, creative, funny students yearning to be more, do more, give more. Most remained invisible to the city, reduced to those kids in that school.
You might say I should not be surprised that the valedictorian of a Richmond public high school was not prepared for college-level work. And that may be true, but it is also pat. At its worst, this response is a smirk in the face of a crisis — and it is a crisis — that can make or break a city, a neighborhood, a community, a young person. It downplays the magnitude of the challenges with which our city schools are presented. Worse, it risks a kind of blindness to the sea of potential that also exists within these same schools. That is the tragedy, is it not, of the state of urban schools (urban being code for black, for brown, for poor) — the way in which the lack of belief in the ability of a system to change can morph, insidiously, into the lack of belief in the capacity of young people to succeed.
Mercedes does not believe in giving up or giving in. When I asked her if her freshman-year struggles ever led her to despair, she responded immediately and vehemently.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no,” she declared.
When Mercedes came home that first year of college for winter break, she went to Marshall to see her former English teacher, Laura Ramsay, “the best teacher I ever had in my life.” She told Mrs. Ramsay of her struggles. High school came easy for you, she says her teacher told her that day. You’re out of your comfort zone now, but it’s where you need to be, Mercedes, to keep learning, to keep growing.
“There is a fire inside me,” Mercedes told me. “I can’t even put into words what it is, but I know how it feels and I know it has to do with setting an example for my sisters and having my family proud of me.”
“There is a fire inside me ... And I’m praying to get it back. I just have to go through some things to do that," says Mercedes. (Photo by Jay Paul)
That fire dimmed in her first hard year of transition, she says. “And I’m praying to get it back. I just have to go through some things to do that. But I know the fire is still in me and I know I will bring it back.”