|Amanda Glover Bradley '11|
They could have made excuses and dropped out of school like thousands of other teens facing adversity.
Yet they succeeded, even excelled, despite the odds against them. Poverty. Cultural differences. Stubbornness. The death of a mother.
Nothing could keep them from achieving their goal of earning a high school diploma and a college acceptance letter.
Now, with big scholarships in hand, they start the next leg of their journey.
Surviving loss: A mother’s academic wish fulfilled
On the day of Carla Bradley’s funeral, teenagers in gray slacks and plaid skirts respectfully filed into a holiness church to mourn the passing of a woman that many of them had never met.
Their support for a new classmate in November 2007 would expand Amanda Bradley’s definition of family at a time when she felt hers was falling apart.
The compassion that the Marist School students showed the family, the way that they carried themselves with quiet dignity -- it was exactly what Bradley's mother wanted for her daughter, who was then just a 15-year-old freshman at a mostly Catholic school.
“I was very delighted about how everyone reached out to me," said Amanda, 18. "It was one of the things that I love about the school and will never forget.”
Despite the loss of one of her biggest supporters, Amanda found the courage to move on. Since sixth grade, she had dreamed of going to Harvard.
“She took it day by day,” her grandmother Vera Bradley said. “We are a praying family.”
Her father Cedric Bradley was also there for for her.
Carla Bradley had pushed her daughter to apply to Marist, where 100 percent of students graduate and go to college, because she wanted her to excel. Amanda tested the waters at a summer enrichment program.
Reach for Excellence helped her to apply to Marist for freshman year and secure financial aid to make tuition affordable.
Amanda knew she wasn't the typical Marist student. She had eight brothers and sisters and was raised mostly by her paternal grandmother. (Carla Bradley was diagnosed with kidney failure when Amanda was a first grader.) She lived modestly in West Atlanta. Many of her classmates, she said, had elite Buckhead and Dunwoody addresses and lakefront vacation villas.
“I am low income, and I was used to going to a 100 percent African-American school. I wanted to experience something new," she said. "There were so many people in my neighborhood that had given up on their dreams. I wanted to inspire people to not just conform."
Despite classes that Amanda says were demanding, she graduated with an A+ average. A support network helped her to cope with her grief and focus on school. Her grandmother came to her games when she was basketball cheer captain. Her classmates voted her junior class president and co-president of student government senior year. Marist's director of counseling Gordon Stanley personally led her through college applications and reviewed her essays, Amanda said. “I was in his office practically everyday."
Amanda received 11 college acceptances, including one from Harvard. She will attend as a Gates Millennium Scholar, an award her sister told her about. The scholarship will pay her tuition, room and board and for graduate school, depending on her major. “I have made my father proud. My mother would be so excited.”
Vera Bradley assures her granddaughter that her mother knows: “She’s in heaven with her chest stuck out saying, ‘That is my child.'"
Bridging the language divide: Student realizes college potential
Karla Cruz would often hear classmates talking about college, but she didn’t think she could actually go. Her parents didn’t have degrees.
But when the First Generation college club was formed at Dacula High her senior year, it opened her mind to the possibility. Some of her international classmates in the school of 1,960 were too ashamed to admit they would be the first in their immediate families to hope to attend a university, but not Karla.
“We had a lot of kids who didn’t know anything about the college application process,” said Patty James, a guidance counselor who led the club of 10 teens. “They felt like they were alone. They needed to know that they weren’t the only ones who had doubts.”
Karla learned about financial aid and toured a college with the group to make applying less intimidating. “My parents never said anything about attending college. I thought I couldn’t go because it was expensive.”
Juan and Margarita Cruz left Mexico to find jobs and quality schools so they could start a family. The couple relocated from Boston to Dacula when Karla, who was born in the United States, was 5. She learned English at school. But, as she got older, good grades weren't a priority for her.
Karla's grade point average was 1.6 her freshman year. But by her senior year, she had a 3.1 as she began to focus on college.
She received a $20,000 Broad Prize scholarship for overcoming academic struggles. She was accepted into Georgia Gwinnett College.
"I still can't believe it, " she said. "I cried."
Her sister Karen, a junior, said she is proud. She joined the college club, too. “I learned it’s better to start young. Four years pass by really quickly.”
Adjusting and thriving: Student learns identity is an asset
It was her mother’s idea to attend Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School. Rekeyia Sherrell thought she would have been perfectly happy at Grady High.
She didn’t like the uniforms. Or the fact that she’d be a new face on a predominantly white campus, building its diversity.
“It was a change. Not only was I going to be a freshman, I was going to be a minority around people who were brought up differently,” she said.
Her mother pushed her into Holy Innocents'. A Better Chance placement program helped the family apply and secure financial aid to make it affordable.
"This is what you need," Traci Sherrell, told her daughter. “I wanted her to have options.”
Rekeyia thought that her mother would tire of the 30-mile commute
from College Park, but it didn’t happen. “I found ways to cope,” Rekeyia said.
She got active in school and found her classmates friendly and accepting. Rekeyia was the first African-American to lead the junior varsity and varsity cheer squads.
She also pushed herself academically, signing up for honors math sophomore year when an instructor warned against it.
“The teacher actually told me she didn’t think I could pass,” said Rekeyia,18, who has three siblings. “I got a B.”
She worked harder than ever before, taking her math book everywhere – even to bed.
Rekeyia was inspired to try more rigorous classes, then took on leadership positions addressing student misconceptions about race. She graduated with an A average as the school's' first Gates Millennium Scholar and will attend Howard University. “I came here and did what I was destined to do.”
Her father, Richard Sherrell, was thrilled when he heard about the Gates. “I always tell her that she can go anywhere and do anything in life. She has the mental capacity.”
Surpassing limited resources: Ambition opens Ivy League doors
His mother left her job as a security guard, yet she couldn’t be happier. His father is smiling wider.
Paul Harris Jr., a kid who used imagination instead of expensive toys to entertain himself, graduated as valedictorian of Carver Early College with offers from 25 universities. Many of them Ivy League.
“He was early accepted to Harvard University, Brown and Columbia ,” beams his principal Marcene Thorton. “I want to hold him back another year. He is so good for the kids. He is living proof that it’s possible."
Paul, another Gates Scholar, has become a school legend.
“Public school was my only option, so I made the best I could out of it,” said Joann Harris. “I got involved in my children’s education. Every morning before they went to school, I would kiss them, bless them and send them off telling them, ‘Great things are going to happen to you today.’ ”
Summers were spent at the library. Paul became a voracious reader. He found math and science fascinating.
To pass the time, Paul and his sister Angelique Harris, now a pre-med student on full scholarship at Johns Hopkins University, invented things.
“I was 10 when I made a working replica of an air conditioning unit,” Paul,18, said. “I used a bunch of different boxes. I had some wire and fans. I used ice cubes for cooling. It was very rudimentary. Somehow, I used the fan to cool the air from the ice cubes and blew it out the vent that I made.”
They also built a model car using motors, Legos and spare Matchbox tires.
Paul followed his sister to Carver Early College. By junior year, he landed a summer research scholarship in California plotting the path of asteroids. “They only accepted 34 people. I was there with [students] from Greece, Turkey and France. Sometimes we stayed up until 3 a.m.”
His research was archived at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
He credits his family at home and at school for his success. “They taught me that you can do whatever you put your mind to.”
Paul's mother is so excited about where he is going to college she even tells strangers.
“Ever since he brought me the acceptance letter, I have been telling people, ‘My son is going to Harvard!’” she said, giddy with excitement. “I told the mailman. I told the people at the bank. I told the people at work when I had a job. I stood out in the neighborhood. My son is going to Harvard!”
By D. Aileen Dodd
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution6:10 p.m. Sunday, June 12, 2011