Over three days this week, Review-Journal reporter Trevon Milliard and photographer Jeff Scheid told the agonizing and maddening story of former Chaparral High School student James “Bubba” Dukes, a tragically normal boy within the walls of a campus bursting with hope and heartbreak.
If you haven’t read the stories, published on the front pages of the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday editions of the Review-Journal, take the time to consume every word of them. The narrative, a testament to the power of print journalism, is available online at www.reviewjournal.com/Dukes.
It is full of timeless and valuable lessons for students, parents, politicians and policymakers alike, none more important than this: All the help and support in the world can’t help people who make consistently bad choices.
The stories document the senior year of Mr. Dukes, an 18-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch, 315-pound hulk who dreams of escaping poverty through football but can’t make progress toward the diploma that would get him into college. He’s the oldest boy in a family of 10 children, raised under the constant specter of homelessness by a single mother who’s in and out of jail. And at the start of his senior year, he becomes a father himself.
Teenage parents are all too common at Chaparral, which typically has at least 50 student parents and 20 pregnant students. “The school nurse sees so many miscarriages, she has become an expert on recognizing symptoms,” Mr. Milliard wrote. About 6 percent of the school’s students are homeless, twice the Clark County School District average. Grinding poverty and family crises are everywhere.
In 2011, Chaparral had a graduation rate of 34 percent, the worst in the state. That led to a “Turnaround School” designation, which installed David Wilson as principal with a three-year, $2.5 million federal grant and a mandate to replace most of his staff.
Thanks to Mr. Wilson, Chaparral effectively became a one-stop social service agency, as well as an intensive remediation campus. On top of unimaginably dedicated educational specialists, who created plans for every credit-deficient student to graduate on time and provided the academic support necessary to keep kids from dropping out, an array of nonprofits staffed Chaparral:
— Communities in Schools stationed three full-time workers at the campus to provide tutoring, counseling and help obtaining food and clothes.
— Community Closet converted a classroom into a shop for needy students, offering everything from food to prom dresses.
— The Weekend Backpack Program gave students weekend food supplies from local food banks.
— Social workers provided students with parenting classes and help in applying and interviewing for jobs.
Whatever students needed, whatever excuse might have kept them from going to class, Chaparral had an answer. And teachers were willing to go an extra hundred miles to prevent a single student from slipping through the cracks.
The approach has helped. Chaparral’s graduation rate hit 50 percent in 2012, topped 60 percent in 2013, and could approach 70 percent this year. (The state hasn’t reported the final, official number yet.)
At one point, Mr. Wilson assigned someone to escort Mr. Dukes from class to class. The polite young man could leave school with free diapers, baby formula, food, clothes and toiletries, not just for himself, but for his entire family. His football coach, Bill Froman, drove him to school, fed him, gave him equipment and pushed him to rise above his circumstances: “Finish strong. Do a difficult task when you don’t want to. Graduate.” Educators called and texted Mr. Dukes when he didn’t show up for school. “Almost all of us have been to Bubba’s house one time or another,” Mr. Wilson said.
But none of those steps could keep Mr. Dukes on the right path. He kept finding excuses for failure — some legitimate, some not. He started selling drugs. He didn’t graduate. His last chance at winning a football scholarship to a small college is passing the GED test next month.
An environment of unprecedented assistance and intervention, created by a surge of taxpayer funding, couldn’t get Mr. Dukes to the finish line. He wouldn’t let it. We want every child in this valley to complete rigorous coursework and gain a high school diploma that has value. But some kids won’t graduate no matter what we do.
An exchange between Mr. Wilson and Mr. Dukes says it all.
“What kind of choices you been making, boss?”
“Not the good ones, Mr. Wilson.”
“The thing is, we love you. I don’t know any place in the world that has shown as much love to you as we have, my friend. We continue to. But, in the end, whose decision is it?”
Later, Mr. Wilson acknowledges a hard truth to Mr. Milliard: “I lose more than I save.”