Brilliant against the odds

Scholars: Three fifth-graders in one class will be honored. At least one had to overcome an unpromising background.

April 29, 2000|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Statistics show life should hold little promise for Tavon Brown.

His mother gave birth to him when she was 17. Until recently, he lived in the Flag House public housing site near Little Italy. And his parents earn less than $30,000 annually for a family of six.

Yet Tavon, 10, is among the brightest fifth-graders in his City Springs Elementary School class. He consistently makes good grades, rarely misses school and has been awarded a $1,000 scholarship from neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson.

Tavon and 202 other recipients will be honored for their hard work Sunday at a banquet from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Baltimore Convention Center.

This is the fifth year Carson has provided scholarships for students in fourth through 12th grades in Maryland, Washington, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

Recipients, chosen from more than 700 applicants, must have a minimum 3.75 grade point average and exhibit strong humanitarian qualities.

Tavon's parents, Raynette Woodland and Troy Brown, say the scholarship confirms that their son's academic performance hasn't suffered, as they had feared it would, because of his living conditions.

"Tavon made me proud because I never thought he would be this excellent in school," said Woodland, a housekeeper at BluePoint Nursing & Rehab Center. "Because of the environment he grew up in, I thought it would change him, but it hasn't."

Tavon has seen Baltimore's ugly side, including a dead body, the shooting of a police officer and the beating of a man with a gun. Not to mention drug dealers and addicts scattered throughout the city.

In February, Tavon's parents moved into Towns at The Terrace, a cluster of townhouses on Saratoga Street in West Baltimore that replaced the former Lexington Terrace public housing complex.

Now, instead of crowding into a two-bedroom apartment that offered no play areas, the family has three bedrooms and a fenced-in yard.

"We don't have shooting around here," Tavon said recently, sitting in the kitchen with his mother and baby sister, Torchia Brown, 2. "Now, I have a back yard. It feels better. We can have a cookout during the summer."

Like most kids, Tavon enjoys barbecues, movies, hanging out with friends and playing video games. But his likes go beyond recreational activities.

Tavon loves school and reading. He is conscientious about his homework and sprawls out on his bedroom floor nightly, spending at least 40 minutes engrossed in a book.

His favorites are mysteries and thrillers.

"I like the descriptive words," Tavon said. "You can picture your own people, the characters and what they look like."

As Tavon talked, his little sister jumped onto his lap, prompting Woodland to order her upstairs to get her miniature stool. Before the toddler could respond, Tavon hopped up to fetch it.

Doing things without being asked, such as washing the dishes, is characteristic of Tavon, his mother said.

His teacher, Stacey Cornetti, agreed.

"He does everything you could imagine, and he's the type of student you don't have to ask to do things," said Cornetti, who nominated Tavon for the award. "He just does them. He goes above and beyond all the time. I've never seen a student like him, always on task."

Tavon's academic performance allowed him to take some fifth-grade classes last year, Cornetti said.

"He's very motivated, always wants to do his best, has to be perfect in everything that he does, strives for approval from adults and performs above grade level in every academic area," Cornetti said. "He also respects not only adults but also his peers. He's very honest, kind, very caring about other people and puts people before himself. He's well-respected by everyone."

Tavon is among Cornetti's 13 pupils. She teaches him in all subjects except math.

At school, Tavon tutors classmates, is a breakfast monitor in the morning and plays on the basketball team.

He also watches sports on television and likes playing with his other siblings, Raymond Woodland, 9, and Trinette Brown, 7.

A self-described shy person around strangers, Tavon said he looks forward to Sunday's banquet. Classmates Erica Rogers and Krystal Lewis, both 10, also won $1,000 scholarships and are expected to attend.

The money is invested in trust funds for college, and pupils are allowed to reapply annually if they maintain the required grades and fulfill other criteria, including humanitarianism.

Carson said he started the scholarship program with his wife, Candy, because he often saw huge trophies in schools for athletic achievements but hardly anything recognizing strong academic performance.

"It becomes crucial not only in inner cities, but really everywhere throughout our society that we begin to elevate academic performance, at least to the level where we elevate athletic achievement," Carson said during a telephone interview. "Ultimately, it's not the ability to shoot a 25-foot jump shot but the ability to solve a quadratic equation that will keep us as the No. 1 nation in the world."

Carson's scholarships aren't based on income or race, but he said stressing academics is particularly important among blacks.

"It's so important for the young people to have appropriate role models, especially in the African-American community," said Carson, who is African-American and rebounded from academic mis- steps to be a leading surgeon. "We need to show people who aren't just sports stars and entertainers."

Tavon seems to understand that. Asked to identify his favorite athletes, he paused for several seconds. He didn't hesitate when asked about his role models:

"My father. That's the male," he said. "The female's my mother. They show me not to do the wrong things, like go on drugs."

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