Monday, July 23, 2012

Illiterate teen's chance encounter with teacher put him on path to college

This profile of a young man in New Orleans who turned his life around with the help of dedicated TFA teachers and a KIPP school captures what this struggle is all about:

As focused and self-possessed as the 18-year-old is today, it's hard to imagine Troy needing to have crossed paths with anybody to get on the road to success. Still, his biking past Sarah Bliss after an Uptown parade is textbook serendipity. She called out to him and immediately pulled him into a network of Teach for America teachers who resumed the work they'd begun with Troy when he was in Houston after the storm.

He remembers that fifth-grade year at New Orleans West College Prep (a KIPP school that evacuated to Houston) as the first time teachers told him, "We're going to help you accomplish your goals."

And not just pass him along?

"Second grade, I don't know how I made it to third grade," he said. "Third grade, I don't know how I made it to fourth grade."

It wasn't because he could read. He didn't recognize any words, not even cat or dog. Predictably, he failed LEAP. But he was too old to be held back again.

Nicole Cummins, his fifth-grade reading teacher, wondered, "How could this have happened? How could a kid get this far behind?" Despite his skills being "incredibly deficient" -- a team including Bliss and Ben Ochstein started Troy on phonics -- Cummins saw something special in him that "made me want to make sure that he didn't slip through any more cracks."

And yet, he did. He was arrested several times when he came back to New Orleans. In seventh grade he wore an ankle bracelet. As a peddler of marijuana, he had to decide if he was going to take the next step: push crack.

He knew, "Once I make that decision there's actually no backing out." So that's where he stopped. Others were expecting him to live a gangsta life, but Troy was honest with himself: "I didn't have the skills."

But nor did he have the skills to do the right thing, which is why his encounter with Bliss was like a prayer answered.

"He really just wanted to learn to read," she said. "He wanted to pass LEAP." She offered him tutoring, and he said, "Ms. Bliss, I want to take you up on your offer."

Troy can read now, well enough to have made it through New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy, well enough to have earned admission to college.


Illiterate teen's chance encounter with teacher put him on path to college

Published: Friday, May 18, 2012, 9:30 AM

By Jarvis DeBerry

 Subscribe in a reader