Even a KIPP valedictorian can struggle in college

ByDanielle Dreilinger

Read the full article at NOLA.com >

Keishunn Johnson was KIPP Renaissance High School’s first valedictorian. He had a full scholarship to Howard University and was well into his sophomore year. But he wanted to go home.

In a study room an hour before class, Keishunn struggled to skim his required reading. The topic interested him — how altruistic a person should be — but his mind was back in New Orleans, where his brother lay hurting.

Though Keishunn had a golden ticket to college, staying on his path has taken determination and support.

“I’m not going to an all-boys high school”

No one in Keishunn’s family has graduated from college. His father, Paul, did not finish high school. His mother, Felicia, lost her track scholarship at Southern University of New Orleans after she became pregnant.

Early in 2005, the family moved to Georgia, where Felicia was from. They returned to New Orleans five years later in part so Keishunn could qualify for Louisiana’s taxpayer-funded TOPS scholarships.

The school system they returned to had changed radically, reinvented after Hurricane Katrina. Everyone had to pick a school, and space ran out early at popular options. Keishunn’s parents found only two remaining places acceptable: a new charter from the KIPP network and an all-male Catholic school.

Keishunn didn’t have to think twice, even though he played football and the new school didn’t have a team.

“I was like, ‘Well, I’m not going to an all-boys high school, so sign me up for KIPP,’” he said.

School had always come easily to Keishunn, who learned to read when he was four. Maybe too easily: He would learn in a snap, then lose interest. His mother thought he didn’t push himself.

At first, KIPP Renaissance was the same: boring. After gifted classes in Georgia, “a lot of the work seemed redundant,” he said. He had a bit of an attendance problem. He stayed for 10th grade largely because he quailed at transferring: “Being from out of town, I would have to start over again, and it was a hard process the first time,” he said.

Indeed, socially, school had not been so easy. He got bullied in Georgia for having a New Orleans accent, for being different. In contrast, KIPP Renaissance felt warm and welcoming. The principal drove him to summer camp. He liked that he had a community of peers focused on college.

Over time, teachers pried him out of his shell, pushing him to try public speaking. He attended a prestigious summer program at Davidson College in North Carolina. He played basketball and lacrosse at KIPP Renaissance, “and eventually we did get a football team.”

In Keishunn’s senior year, administrators finally managed to light a fire under the laid-back A student. A new transfer student had better grades, they said. He went into overdrive.

After he earned valedictorian status, teachers told Keishunn they had invented the whole thing, with the transfer student in on the scheme.

“They knew how to push my buttons,” he said.

Keishunn decided to leave the region for college. He wanted a different world. Literally: the 1980s television show “A Different World,” about a fictional, prestigious, historically black university, inspired him to choose Howard over Davidson, Franklin & Marshall College and other schools.

He received a full academic scholarship — his mother’s preference, after her own experience.

Despite usually feeling pretty safe in his Upper 9th Ward neighborhood, Keishunn stayed inside most of the summer after high school, envisioning the worst-case scenario and tragic headlines. “I didn’t want to be that news story,” he said. “‘He was on his way to Howard …’”

A culture shock

In August 2014, Keishunn stepped off a plane in Washington, D.C, alone, in a city he had never seen.

Howard was different – in the wrong way. He had problems with financial aid, housing and schedules. He planned to become a doctor, but pre-med classes didn’t interest him that much. He had to quit the football team after learning he had a heart murmur. His tendency to procrastinate finally caught up with him, resulting in B-pluses and A-minuses – for him, a real drop.

Perhaps more important, Keishunn’s shyness rushed in. He felt alienated. Racism wasn’t a problem, but to his surprise, his peers had other ways of putting their fellow students down. He had imagined meeting black people from different backgrounds, but he felt like everyone just wanted to be the same.

“Kids from foreign countries come here and try to fit in, to hide their culture,” Keishunn said.

Lonely and disenchanted, he did something he never could have imagined: He started filling out an application to LSU.

Keishunn’s advisers pushed back. His Howard counselor, Ebonirose Wade, asked him to wait to make a decision after his freshman year. She said transferring was “a $10 solution for a 10-year plan.” His mother, Felicia, agreed. His KIPP counselor, Scarlet Feinberg, laid out the pros and cons of LSU, secretly hoping he would stay at Howard.

In New Orleans for winter break, Keishunn made an important new connection. He and other KIPP alumni dined at the home of U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, whose wife served on the KIPP New Orleans board. The meeting gave him a new direction, hearkening back to an old trouble.

There was a time, in Georgia, when “I was very vengeful,” Keishunn said. “Being an outsider, I got picked on a lot … (and) I’m not the type to be bullied.” Sometimes he reacted with his fists.

He did that for the last time in sixth grade, when a boy named Jarvis started in with him. The fight ended with Jarvis’ busted lip, Keishunn said, but the police arrested both boys. He had to appear, terrified, in front of a judge.

It was a life-changing moment. Keishunn’s teachers testified to his good character and grades. The judge “gave me a second chance,” he said: six months’ probation.

But when he moved back to New Orleans, some of his friends got in trouble, and they didn’t get second chances. They got incarcerated. Some “won’t be out until I’m 24, 25,” he said.

He thought the judges lacked “understanding of the circumstances behind actions people take. And it seemed sometimes the punishment didn’t match the crime,” he said.

The impact of the Georgia judge stayed with Keishunn. “It’s one decision that can change a person’s life for the better,” he said. “If I can sit there and do the same thing for another young man that was done for me, that would be worth it.”

Becoming a judge meant becoming a lawyer, and Louisiana’s elected judiciary means politics and elections. Howard University made more sense than ever.

Keishunn began to find his footing. After a thorough grilling from Wade, he switched his major to political science. He made friends and the honor roll. Polite visited D.C. and took him out for dinner.

In October of his sophomore year, he was waiting for pizza when a pretty freshman walked by. They smiled at each other. Keishunn was too shy to start a conversation, but the freshman marched back and introduced herself: Adrianna. Immediately, he felt comfortable with her, like he could be himself.

The hardest time

When Keishunn was home for the 2015 holidays, the call came.

It was from his oldest sibling, Joseph. He had gotten into a car accident and needed a ride. While family were on the way, a second car hit Joseph, who suffered critical injuries. Doctors had to amputate one of Joseph’s legs; months later, they took the other too.

Keishunn immediately contacted Feinberg, his KIPP counselor, for help to transfer home to Dillard or Xavier. His father worked all the time, and his mother would need help with Joseph, he told her. Again, Feinberg urged a brief wait.

It turned out that Joseph wouldn’t hear of Keishunn moving home. Neither would his mother.

“It don’t make no sense to jeopardize your future because of something we can handle,” Felicia said. “We’re going to need someone with education to help the next generation, and the generation after that.”

Besides, she pointed out, she worked in medicine and elder care.

However, it’s one thing to know you can leave, and another to want to stay. Keishunn embarked upon five classes for his sophomore spring semester consumed with worry.

Alone, he would get lost in thought. Classes and assignments fell by the wayside. “It’s very hard to be here when your mind is somewhere else,” he said.

Keishunn’s friends led a distraction campaign, to get his mind off it. With Adrianna, “I might have been a little clingy,” he admitted. She made him go to the movies and cooked him nourishing meals (though her first try at fried chicken almost led to salmonella poisoning). She moved her teddy bear into his room.

Still, the stress mushroomed. For the first time, the high school valedictorian was seriously worried about his grades. “By midterms, I was pretty much failing every class,” he said. And he couldn’t afford even to get Cs. He would lose his scholarship, which would mean losing Adrianna and his new friends.

He knew he had to take charge. The introverted sophomore told his professors about his brother and promised to catch up.

Keishunn rewrote essays. He calculated what score he would have to earn on each final, and thought of what he might do to get extra credit, such as writing his Spanish professor, Wendy McBurney, a two-page email in Spanish.

Feinberg made sure he was visiting his professors and reminded him to think about the future. Had he applied for internships?

By April, Keishunn was a model of diligence — and exhaustion. “I’m just trying to survive this semester,” he said.

In the last week of class, as other students strolled in late, he arrived early for a pop quiz in political science and wrote neatly and steadily until he had filled the entire page. He stayed a few minutes after Spanish to arrange a meeting with McBurney.

“He goes further than the other students,” McBurney said afterwards. “I notice that.”

Moving forward

Two months later, Keishunn came home from his law firm internship marveling over what he’s learned about New Orleans’ roads and bridges.

His parents had moved from their Upper 9th Ward shotgun house to a New Orleans East cottage — fewer steps for Joseph. But they wouldn’t need it forever; the doctor said he would walk again.

“I came home. Everything was good. They really didn’t need my help,” Keishunn said. Joseph “still can get on my nerves like he used to when he had two legs.”

He even managed to finish the semester with a cumulative 3.4 grade point average. If he had transferred to a New Orleans college, “I would’ve felt very, very stupid.”

“Mom wasn’t going to let him do it,” Felicia said. “I wouldn’t jeopardize nothing that I thought would make him better because he has a lot of potential. And I want to see what that potential will bring.”

In September, Keishunn mapped out his remaining coursework with plans to graduate in December 2017. He wants to attend law school at Georgetown University and eventually become a Supreme Court justice.

Before going to college, he hid his dreams, thinking, “Who are you to shoot so high?” Not anymore. After learning African history, he knows differently.

“I came from greatness,” he said.