Jerry Davich: Gary’s ‘GT’ students show high hopes, higher accomplishments
Jerry Davich email@example.com July 28, 2012 10:03PM
Jatika Expose', shown here with her parents after graduating from Indiana University Bloomington this spring, has been in various schools’ gifted-and-talented or honors program since first grade. | Provided photo~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 30, 2012 6:21AM
Gifted and talented.
This familiar grade school phrase best describes a close-knit group of stellar students who not only were in this academic honors program as kids, but who’ve exemplified its potential as adults.
Many of them met in kindergarten at Banneker Elementary School in Gary, where they first bonded more than 15 years ago. Others joined this elite group of high-achievers at Tolleston Middle School or West Side High School.
Through the years, they’ve shared many of the same teachers, educators, and mentors within the Gary Community Schools Corp. Also, several Northwest Indiana role models routinely visited their classrooms to inspire them, including State Sen. Earline Rogers, Tuskegee Airman Quentin Smith, and various other Gary-based dignitaries.
Together, the students attended countless spell bowls, summer camps, chess tournaments, tennis matches, Saturday school days, science projects, PTA meetings, art projects, book presentations, live theater productions, and international language studies. You name it, they learned it. And mastered it.
Along the way, they’ve only gotten closer, stronger and, of course, smarter before graduating from different colleges this past spring, many of them on full-ride scholarships.
The students’ names are dearly familiar to each other, as well as to their respected teachers, proud parents and avid supporters. Someday, their names may be familiar to you, too.
Rachel Wright, Jatika Expose’, Shannon Dixon, Kenecia Williams, Lydia Johnson, Kimberly Brown, Morgan-Leanne House, DeMark Jenkins, Romelle Morris, Malcolm Joseph, Amber Gardner, Elliott Staples, and Shelbi Williams.
“I am just amazed at how well the whole group has done,” said Faye Tippy, mother of Rachel Wright. “I cannot believe how fast this has happened. And they’re still close no matter where they went to college.”
Jatika Expose’, who graduated from Indiana University Bloomington in June, told me she feels “blessed” to have teachers who sincerely cared about her achievements, ability to finish high school, and make it through college.
“Teachers like Ms. Butcher, Ms. Richardson, Ms. Carson, Ms. Toodes, Ms. Edmond, Ms. Golston, Ms. Carter, Ms. Ransom, Mr. Watkins, Ms. Joy, Ms. Morgan, Ms. Gober and Ms. G. Williams,” Expose recalled. “They had the biggest influence on our lives, and some we still are in contact with to this day.”
Foundation forged in Gary
This is a common trait among high-achieving students, I’ve learned. Not only can they remember the names of their educators, but they also have an appreciation for their teachers’ tireless efforts to help them succeed.
“They pushed us to be excellent, to care about academics,” Expose said.
For example, while other students were outside enjoying recess, the “GT” students, as they’re called, would group together to work on the next night’s homework.
“So we wouldn’t have to worry about it,” Expose explained.
DeMark Jenkins attended Pittman Square Elementary School, then Tolleston Middle School, where he entered the vaunted “GT” program.
“I was afraid because all the students in the program were from Banneker Elementary and, as a child, it was a stigma that the Banneker kids thought they were better than everyone else. Because they were smarter,” Jenkins said. “They were the prep children that we never saw up close.”
But he eventually melted into the challenging program while also excelling as a student-athlete in high school. His football skills led to a full-ride scholarship at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where he just graduated with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies.
“I have never lost contact with any of my friends from the GT program,” he said. “They are a large component to my will and success here in Ohio.”
There, he works for the United Way of Greater Toledo while coaching for the South Toledo Bisons youth football team.
Lydia Johnson also graduated from West Side High School in 2008, following in the “GT” footsteps of her older sister, Leah.
“For me, one of the best things about the program and the curriculum is that everyone set such high expectations,” she told me. “Our teachers and administrators expected us to continue through high school and graduate with an academic honors diploma. We talked about college in elementary school.”
“My father and grandfather were my biggest academic supporters. Both of them passed away in 2011 so I consider everything I’ve done thus far as a testament to their encouragement,” said Johnson, who graduated from Butler University in May with a degree in English and creative writing.
She is currently living back in Miller while working at Evergreen Cemetery in Hobart.
Expose and the others fully understand how rare and special their group has become.
“There is truly not another bunch like us,” she said.
Johnson added, “It makes me proud because we all started from the same foundation.”
That foundation was forged in the Steel City and, as I’ve said before, Gary’s most treasured resource should be its youth. These new graduates should be the poster children for the city’s future hopes, despite the bad press we too often read.
Jenkins summed it up best: “I am a product of the public school system in Gary that is looked so down upon. But it resulted in bonds that have no chance of dissolving. The 2008 class of the gifted and talented program — it’s a part of me... a family.”
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