In the early afternoon hours of Aug. 24, the 900 block of East 17th Street in Wilmington is hot and heavy and bright beneath a blazing city sun. The weathered row homes that line the narrow block almost appear to creak beneath the relentless burn and simmering humidity. And all around, the powder keg indolence of inner-city youth can be found perched on stoops, wandering alleys, or looking for trouble whenever trouble doesn’t come looking for them.
If his life hadn’t changed so drastically over the past three years, 13-year-old Daivon Jackson-Wright may have been out there, too, whiling away the last few days of summer vacation with who-knows-what brand of mischief. But on this sweltering afternoon, Jackson-Wright is very much inside. He has something more important on his mind than stoop-sitting or street-running. He’s got a speech to prepare.
Tomorrow is the annual Tie Induction Ceremony for Prestige Academy, the charter school for boys on Thatcher Street, where Jackson-Wright has been getting his education since he was first enrolled there as a fifth-grader in 2008, the school’s inaugural year. Back then, Jackson-Wright had to go through his own Tie Presentation, and he knows as well as anyone how important the ceremony is.
See, the tie—which is worn by every Prestige student, along with uniform khakis and a button-down shirt—is more than just a tie. It’s a symbol of transformation, a banner of pride, and a constant reminder to the academy’s students of where they’re headed if they stay on the right path.
“The tie is about respect,” says Prestige founder and executive director Jack Perry. “If you allow kids to come to school without the tie, that means they don’t respect the uniform anymore. That turns into, ‘Well, do I need to respect my teachers?’ And that turns into, ‘Well, do I need to respect the work I have to do?’ The kids have to earn the right to wear that shirt and tie, which is why we have the ceremony.”
That’s why Jackson-Wright has been chosen to speak at the ceremony tomorrow morning. Standing in front of more than 300 parents and incoming fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders, he’s going to tell his story, because his story is the narrative to which Perry hopes every Prestige student aspires.
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Back to School
When Prestige first opened its doors, Jackson-Wright was one of the academy’s 103 inaugural fifth-graders. The academy expects to have a student body of more than 400 boys in fifth through eighth grade by the end of this school year.
Perry, who grew up in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood and, he says, was “lucky not to become another statistic,” founded the tuition-free middle school for boys three years ago. It serves Wilmington and its surrounding communities. Through a rigorous, college-prep curriculum and academic culture, Prestige is designed for boys just like Jackson-Wright who live in underserved communities and are academically behind the national average.
“What we’re trying to do here is serious business,” says Perry.
So is Jackson-Wright’s speech. With less than 24 hours to go, he’s still a little nervous. This school year marks his last at Prestige, but he still isn’t used to the celebrity status he’s earned since he first walked the academy’s halls as a shy, fragile fifth-grader.
Sitting on the living room couch inside his home on East 17th Street, Jackson-Wright folds his hands over his well-pressed khaki slacks; his pale-blue oxford shirt crisp and unblemished. He’s smaller than most other kids his age, and his timid, younger self—the reticent kid who used to give up on schoolwork and socialization—shows through now and then.
Despite the lingering shyness that remains, Jackson-Wright is a changed boy. His father, Barnell, sits in a recliner across from his son, lost in a long soliloquy about the transformation.
“People see him and they know right away. It’s like, My god! Who is this kid? Because they know how he used to be,” says Barnell Wright. “All he ever wanted to do was run off and play. And he couldn’t hold a conversation; couldn’t communicate on paper. Now? He’s a totally different kid.”
Three years ago, Barnell—who is no longer married to Jackson-Wright’s mother—knew something had to change. His boy was 9, his reading and math skills were several years behind where they needed to be, and his confidence level was poor. For several years, Jackson-Wright had been attending Marion T. Academy, the now-defunct charter school that was housed in the same space that Prestige now operates.
“At Marion T., there was a total lack of anything. They just pushed Daivon from grade to grade while he kept going down and down and down. His confidence was just shattered,” says Barnell. “But then I heard about Mr. Perry. He’s from my hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y. And I knew this was a no-nonsense guy. I’m a no-nonsense guy. We’re the same age. And when I met him I thought, Definitely.”
The transition to Prestige wasn’t easy. The school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The school year runs 194 days. Homework is assigned every night, and that includes the additional imperative teachers place on parents to make sure their sons are reading for at least an hour every evening.
“I tell every parent that this will be the strictest school your son has ever been in,” says Perry. “We have a lot of processes in place, not because we want to control your kids, but because we’re giving them the type of structure that will help them be successful. And it works.”
During his first few months there, Jackson-Wright wasn’t convinced.
“I didn’t want to talk to anybody,” he says, taking deep breaths between sentences, still finding his footing as the unofficial Prestige spokesman. “I didn’t have any friends or anything. But after a while, everyone started to get to know me. But my confidence was still low because I knew I wasn’t doing the work as well as I can now. But it’s better now. I know I can achieve more and I know that I can do more. I can do better.”
To illustrate the point, Jackson-Wright likes to tell a story about his first year at the school. During an especially challenging math class, he excused himself from the room, went into the hallway, curled up against a wall and sobbed.
“I was just so frustrated,” he says. “All I could do was cry. I just couldn’t do any of the work.”
Barnell chimes in. “He was basically tapping into his own soul, asking himself, ‘Why can’t I get this? Everyone else can? Why can’t I?’ And then a teacher came up to him, and instead of just telling him to stop crying and get back in the room, she sat down with him and helped him work through it. She actually made him believe he could.”
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The Long Haul
Jackson-Wright struggled. He lacked confidence and pride. Daveon Rogers-Miller, on the other hand, had too much of it. A tall, sturdy, handsome kid, Rogers-Miller thought he was too cool for school. He also started attending Prestige during the fall of 2008. According to his mother, Janean Rogers of Newark, he did everything in his power to get kicked out.
“He just didn’t care,” she says. “He had a total, non-caring attitude about the whole thing. And he tried his hardest to not be in that school. He got smart with teachers, talked back, fell asleep in class. But there was no way I was going to let him leave that school. He was gonna’ stay there.”
And stay he did, reluctantly weathering the transition into a culture that forbid him from sailing through without personal accountability. Coming from a family environment where his mother raised him as the older of two children, Rogers-Miller was headed down the wrong path by the age of 10.
“My friends didn’t go to class. Didn’t care about school,” says Rogers-Miller, sitting in a leather chair inside Perry’s Prestige office. Even though he’s much taller than Justin-Wright (and his voice almost an octave deeper), he speaks with a similarly hushed quality, almost as though he’s still surprised by his newfound articulation and respect. Like seeing a boy try on his father’s suit, it’s rather endearing to witness.
“My friends outside the school are not on the same track as me,” says Rogers-Miller. “Most of them smoke. I used to do it and it’s a bad choice I made. But I stopped and started playing basketball. Got myself on the right track.”
Regardless of his confidence in the path he has chosen, Rogers-Miller says he still weathers taunts from peers who don’t understand why anyone would prefer to attend an all-boys charter school that requires students to get up at 5:30 in the morning, put on a shirt and tie, and do homework until 11 o’clock at night.
“They’re like, ‘Why do you go to that school? That’s dumb. All boys and no girls?’ But I don’t say nothin’. Because I think I’ve got a better chance in life than they do now,” he says. “They’re just doing what everyone in the crowd’s doing. But I don’t pay them any mind. I want more for my life.”
His mother sometimes struggles to articulate the magnitude of her son’s transformation at Prestige and the significance of the young man he’s turning out to be—the one who plays starting center for Prestige’s basketball team. This is a young man who wants to major in psychology, and believes he will eventually own his own business.
“His mind is clear now and he’s headed straight,” says Janean. “Before it was just basketball, basketball, basketball. Now he wants to finish school. He wants to go to college. He sees what he needs to do. It’s a totally different Daveon.”
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Notes From The Dean
Eric Mosely recalls keenly the first year Jackson-Wright attended Prestige. Mosely, the academy’s dean of students and families, was the boy’s homeroom instructor that year. Early in the term, he handed out the year’s first report cards. Amid the clamor of excitement and anxiousness, he noticed Jackson-Wright’s reaction.
“He just started bawling,” says Mosely. “He literally was just holding his head in his hands and just big time crying.”
Some of the students were shocked and silent. Others laughed and teased him. But before Mosely could make a move in defense of his young student, Jackson-Wright stood up, wiped away the tears and said, “I don’t read that well and I don’t like the way I’m feeling. But I’m gonna’ do better. I know I’m gonna’ do better.”
“Some of the boys were still laughing, but Daivon didn’t care,” says Mosely. “And I’m just standing there thinking, ‘Woah! Where did this come from?’”
During the Tie Induction Ceremony, Jackson-Wright tells this story to an audience of parents, students and teachers. He takes deep breaths between sentences, summoning the courage he never knew he had before coming to Prestige.
“Daivon was one of those hallmark things people talked about long after the ceremony was over,” says Perry. “He composed himself and talked about his story. And the adults and kids in the room were all completely with him as he shared those things. And there were some tears for sure.”
Academically, both boys excel these days, bringing home advanced scores in their state exams and earning mostly A’s and B’s. Jackson-Wright wants to go to the University of Kentucky, major in criminal justice, and become a cop.
“These two boys represent what Prestige was created for,” says Perry, who can’t believe that his first class of boys will be graduating at the end of the year. “If we are pushing for every boy to be the best he can be academically and socially, eventually they get that this is what it’s about. They don’t have to be afraid of being a nerd or getting up and talking to the class or scoring the best in the class. This is what it’s about, and these two really epitomize our goal here.”