Prepped for success, students have come far, will go farther

April 18, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

THEY PROBABLY never expected so see each other so soon after they left Polytechnic Institute in 1999, but all three are in Howard University College of Medicine's Class of 2007.

You may have already met Taisha Shai Williams in a previous column. After scoring 1,250 on her SAT exam and posting a 4.0 grade point average at Poly, Williams went to the University of Maryland, College Park, where she was a biology and pre-med major who minored in African-American studies.

Darrell Mason Gray II and Steven James Harris Jr. went farther south for college.

A lot farther.

"Morehouse [College] was the only school I wanted to go to," Gray said of the Atlanta school that is all-male and the alma mater of, among others, one Martin Luther King Jr. "It was the only school I applied to. I liked the brotherhood. I liked the fellowship. It was Black Enterprise magazine's No. 1 ranked historically black college or university. It had an excellent biology program and a good track record of getting students into medical school. And I got a full tuition scholarship."

Gray's 3.9 grade point average and 1,200 on the SAT exam helped get him that scholarship to Morehouse College, where he was a biology and pre-med major. He credits the work ethic Poly's teachers instilled in him as a factor as well. At Poly, the "prep" in the phrase "college preparatory" is taken seriously. That may be why Poly grads don't leave the school without taking a year of calculus.

"Going to Poly gave me a very positive outlook on my career choices and options," Gray said. "I have a lot of friends who got shot or are in jail. The academic program [at Poly] was top-notch. When I got to Morehouse, I was already a step ahead of the game. I breezed through the calculus courses."

In a city where handwringers from the Justice Policy Institute have accused officials of locking up too many black men between the ages of 20 and 30, it is necessary to point out that the 23-year-old Gray isn't among them. It may also be instructive to note his reference to friends who were either shot or ended up in jail and ask what Gray did differently. I sent him an e-mail asking him to elaborate on at least one of those friends. Here is his reply:

"I had a friend who went to Poly temporarily and then later transferred to Northern [High School]. I also knew him as a co-worker at my first job, McDonald's on Reisterstown Road near Northern Parkway. I remember going to work one day and finding out that he had been shot in the head. The details were never made clear to me, but as I understood it, there was unresolved conflict that the killer took it upon himself to end. Such unresolved conflicts and cowardly attempts at resolution have resulted in the premature demise of other friends and acquaintances of mine throughout my entire life."

We can only speculate whether Gray's "friends and acquaintances" had their lives ended by murderers the folks at JPI would just as soon see on our streets as in prison. With about 52 percent of Baltimore black men between 20 and 30 either in prison or on parole or probation, it might be instructive to look at the 48 percent who aren't. Guys like Gray and Harris, for instance, and Ashanti Woods, their classmate at the Howard University College of Medicine, who graduated from Poly in 1998.

"God has blessed me with a strong Christian family that has instilled in me the passion for success and the need to surround myself with positivity," Gray continued in his e-mail. "Of my three closest friends, one is currently [a] second year [student] at Harvard Law School, another is pursuing a dual degree in electrical engineering and physics at North Carolina A&T, and another is a second year medical student at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey."

In an interview I did with Gray, Williams and Harris at Howard University College of Medicine, Gray didn't hesitate to give his high school alma mater part of the credit, either. I asked the trio what makes Poly different from most of Baltimore's zoned neighborhood schools.

"The difference is the relationships that are established between the professor, the administrators and the parents," Gray said. "Teachers at other schools may only come to teach but not necessarily get involved in the students' lives."

Young black men at Poly, Gray stressed, also have the benefit of seeing black Poly alumni return to the school and give them inspiration.

"Alumni returning to school helps," Gray said. "You can visualize that that can be me.'"

The Falls Road brainiac factory was near the top of Gray's list of high school choices when he graduated from Fallstaff Middle School.

"Poly was the No. 1 or No. 2 school at the time I was coming out of middle school," Gray said. I wanted to go to the best school that would give me the best chance of getting into college."

Chalk up another mission accomplished for the folks at Polytechnic Institute.

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