Graduation rates among African-Americans rise in Memphis; education gap with white residents closes

During those long, difficult days when he lived in a homeless shelter, Dacavien Reeves would return from jobs in fast-food restaurants to care for his sick mother, then awaken early the next morning to get his younger brother and sister ready for school and on the bus.

Then, and only then, could he get himself to school.

Often feeling tired and weary, well after class had started, Reeves could sense what other kids at Overton High were thinking:

Why is he always late?

Why is he absent so often?

Why is he even here?

The struggle to keep his grades up amid all his other responsibilities often became almost unbearable. “I just rolled over on my bed and cried,” he said. This was his reality. Always tired and thinking ahead in order to get by past any difficulties that he faced.

Some would say that it would’ve been easy, understandable, even, for Reeves to drop out. But he persevered, graduating with honors this spring, with plans to attend Morehouse College in the fall.

Reeves’ success, dramatic though it may be, is far from unique.

Census estimates for Shelby County over the past decade show a significant increase in the percentage of African-American adults who have earned a high school diploma. As a result, the gap between the percentage of black and white adults who have a high school diploma has narrowed considerably.

As of 2014, an estimated 85.1 percent of African-Americans aged 25 and older in the county had graduated from high school — up from 77.9 percent in 2006. For non-Hispanic white residents, the percentage of those aged 25 and older with a diploma rose from 92.4 to 94.8 percent. Nationally, 86.3 percent of 25-and-older people of all races have graduated from high school.

“We have been moving the needle — slowly, but we have. It’s very encouraging,” said Elena Delavega, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Memphis, who has been tracking the trends in educational achievement among African-Americans, who make up about 53 percent of the county’s population, and other groups.

The trend is important for a variety of economic and social reasons.

Earning power is among the most obvious. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, for the first quarter of 2016, workers who hadn’t graduated from high school earned an average of $494 a week, compared to $679 for those who had a high school diploma but no college experience. That difference in pay amounts to $9,620 a year.

“If people have more money, restaurants do better, shops do better, the economy in general does better,” Delavega said.

The social benefits of staying in school are immense, as well. The incarceration rate among dropouts is 63 times higher than that for college graduates, according to a study by Northeastern University.

The census estimates reflect steady improvements in graduation rates locally and nationally.

Tennessee Department of Education figures show the four-year graduation rate for Shelby County Schools for the 2014-15 academic year was 75 percent. Two years earlier, the rate for the legacy Memphis City Schools, which was absorbed into SCS after surrendering its charter, was 67.6 percent. And those figures don’t include the students who take longer than about four years to graduate.

Nationally, the dropout rate fell from 15 percent in 1970 to 6.8 percent in 2013, federal figures show.

SCS officials have tried a number of programs to keep kids on track to graduate. Among the most successful is an initiative adopted at Whitehaven High School called “Eighth Period.” It’s a 90-minute session on Tuesdays and Thursdays when students can engage in enrichment or remediation studies. Kids who have fallen behind in a class or are lacking credits needed to graduate can make that work up during the school day, said Whitehaven principal Vincent Hunter.

As measures of the program’s success, 451 of Whitehaven’s 468 seniors graduated this spring, and the promotion rate among 11th-graders was 97.4 percent.

“It’s had a tremendous impact,” Hunter said.

For kids like Reeves, academic success resulted more from a support system that included mentors, teachers, and in a less-obvious way, his mother. After his grades fell amid his struggles, he worried about failing his mom, who had worked hard to support the family before falling ill.

“I know she would want me to do my best,” said Reeves, who is 18.

The family twice was evicted from apartments and had a car repossessed after his mom’s health prevented her from earning enough money. Twice they landed in the Salvation Army homeless shelter, for about a month each time.

Still, Reeves studied intensely and watched his grades rise. He enjoyed the sense of accomplishment and decided he wanted other students to have that feeling, as well. He founded BASIC — the Brothers and Sisters Improvement Club. It’s a group in which kids can develop self-esteem and leadership skills and talk about problems such as bullying or family turmoil.

“I saw that as a need,” Reeves said. “That experience right there can make or break you.”

Reeves did more than survive, he excelled. In addition to graduating with honors at Overton, he was Prom King and Homecoming King.

“He’s a born leader,” said Michael Hoots, a teacher at Overton and faculty sponsor for the Family Career Community Leaders of America and the Student Government Association.

Reeves is working an internship this summer at the nonprofit Memphis Music Initiative. With his mother now able to work again, the family is renting a home in East Memphis.

One of the students who joined Reeves’ group was Derrick Dailey, who had been torn by anger and feelings of rebelliousness after his mother died in September 2010, when he was 12. He and his twin sister had to move in with their grandmother.

“I was very depressed and angry,” said Dailey, now 18. “That’s when my grades dropped.”

With help from BASIC, for which he became vice president, he improved his grades to the point he was taking Advanced Placement and honors classes. He’s working at the FedEx hub this summer, with plans to attend Mississippi State University in the fall.

Hoots said that although the SCS officials and the school board work hard to improve graduation rates, social factors also are involved.

“Kids show up for school when they’re involved,” he said. “When they have something like this (BASIC), it’s other kids getting them there”.

article by Tom Charlier Via The Commercial Appeal News Memphis