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Catching up with Mr. Merritt’s class

In 2005-06, Pam Kelley, wrote about Jeremiah Merritt and his fifth-grade class at Merry Oaks International Academy in Charlotte. Eight years later, she found 10 of the 17 students. Here’s what these students and their former teacher are doing today.

Jeremiah Merritt

Seven years after Jeremiah Merritt left Charlotte, he still worries about his Merry Oaks students.

Merritt, who became a minister, was known as a teacher who could reach difficult kids, including those with anger problems or learning difficulties. As a young African-American man, he used to say he still had his ghetto pass. He understood kids’ slang and their music. And at recess, he impressed them on the basketball court.

In the classroom, too, Merritt was a natural. He praised generously and could quiet an unruly child with a stern look. His students loved him.

When the 2005-06 school year ended, Merritt resigned from Merry Oaks International Academy and moved to South Carolina to pursue the ministry. He and his wife, Tifani, have a daughter and three sons, ranging from ages 1 to 10. Tifani Merritt has continued teaching. Merritt leads Kingdom Life Ministries, in Darlington, S.C., and teaches part-time.

Since he founded the church nearly seven years ago, Merritt, 36, says his primary focus has been adult education. But this summer, the church plans a camp for children, and he’s excited about connecting with young people in a way that usually doesn’t happen in his part-time math classes.

“I’m still a teacher,” he says. “That’s just what I am.”

He has sporadically kept up with several students. When he and I discussed his 2005-06 class recently, he shared concern about those who’ve had problems. He even worries about some who have managed to graduate. “Graduating is great,” he says, “but these days, that’s not enough.”

Javoni Farrar

Javoni Farrar, newly graduated from Independence High School, was accepted to Livingstone College in Salisbury, but he has decided not to go.

At Livingstone, he says, he’d be too tempted to party with all the students he knows from Charlotte. “I figured that if I go there, I’ll probably mess up.”

Through school, Javoni has been a lovable kid with the talent to make the honor roll, but he sometimes slacks off on schoolwork. Since he knows this about himself, he has a new plan to give him structure and a better chance for success. He wants to join the Navy Reserve, enroll at Central Piedmont Community College and eventually transfer to a four-year school.

Plans: Javoni is still mulling careers. His older brother, Deniro Farrar, has a budding rap career, so Javoni has thought about that. He has also considered graphic design, engineering and broadcasting. In middle school, he thought bail bondsman would be a good job. He still thinks so. “It’s easy money,” he says. “So many people get arrested.”

Brianna Gonzalez

A year ago, Brianna Gonzalez returned to North Carolina from Juarez, Mexico, where she had lived with her family since leaving Charlotte in 2008.

They settled in Raleigh, and she has spent her senior year attending Athens Drive High. She also has two part-time jobs, as a waitress and a model.

It was a big change. But Brianna is used to adapting.

When she was 6, she immigrated to Charlotte with her family from Juarez. She learned English so quickly that she ended up translating for Spanish-speaking family and neighbors.

During middle school, her parents decided to move back to Juarez. Then, last year, a work opportunity for her father prompted them to return to North Carolina.

The modeling opportunity came by chance. A friend recommended Brianna to Sam Taylor, owner of Raleigh’s Diamond District agency. Taylor was impressed. “Honestly, she’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever taken a picture of,” he says. “And I’ve taken pictures of a lot of women.”

Now, thanks to the modeling, sexy photos populate Brianna’s Facebook page. But she says people shouldn’t assume that she has changed. “I’ve always had my feet on the ground,” she says.

Brianna was a mature fifth-grader who sometimes translated for her father when he negotiated business deals. She even translated for a neighbor having a baby. “I had to grow up really fast when I was really young,” she says.

Plans: With her work earnings, Brianna contributes to her family’s budget and is saving to buy a car and pay for college. She wants to attend Wake Technical Community College. Because she’s not considered an N.C. resident, however, she’ll be paying out-of-state tuition, $4,176 a semester, nearly four times the in-state rate.

Jennifer Lopez

In fifth grade, no one would have picked a diligent student like Jennifer Lopez as the kid who would drop out of school. 

But in February 2012, she did. Jennifer had started high school in East Mecklenburg's rigorous International Baccalaureate Program. When she didn't do the required community service hours, she was transferred to her home school, Garinger. She had fallen behind because she had failed some IB classes. This year, still behind, she got so frustrated, she says, that she dropped out.

Then she began pursuing an education in her own way. Through a federally funded nonprofit called The Q Foundation, she took classes and earned her GED. The foundation also paid her wages while she worked for several businesses, including a restaurant and a computer repair company. 

“She did really well," says Marvin Clowney, the foundation's program director. “She pretty much had all the skills. She just needed a little guidance."

Plans: The foundation is working to help Jennifer register at Central Piedmont Community College. She's interested in pursuing a career in the medical field and eventually enlisting in the Air Force. 

Vicky Olivares

I worried recently when I couldn't reach Vicky Olivares after an initial interview in May. When we finally talked, she explained why she's been so hard to contact: Since school ended, she's trying to work as many hours as possible at her waitressing job at Carrabba's Italian Grill in Matthews. 

She's going to the University of Miami this fall. And she needs money. A lot of it.

Vicky is proof that a student can start school behind and end up excelling.

In fifth grade, I barely heard her speak in English. She was still trying to learn it. Though born in the U.S., she went to live with relatives in Mexico when she was young and lost her English. When she returned to Charlotte, she repeated third grade and was placed in ESL classes. 

But the further she got in school, the better she did. She became determined to be the first in her family to go to college. When she was getting ready to turn 15, she even skipped her quincenera and saved the $5,000 her family would have spent for a party.

The money now sits in a savings account. "I haven't touched it,” she says.

She'll need thousands more. Her stepdad works in construction. Her mom works cleaning offices. "She doesn't get paid enough,” Vicky says. "It's a real struggle.”

She applied to the University of Miami because she loved the city. A school counselor helped her fill out financial aid forms, but she never got extensive advice about choosing and paying for a college. 

The University of Miami, a private school, will cost her, she says, about $48,000 a year. She plans to live with an aunt to save money. Vicky has qualified for some federal grant money, and she says she already has a job as a graphics designer for a school newspaper club that will pay 20 percent of her tuition. The school has also given her loans totaling $12,000 for her freshman year. 

She worries about the debt she's taking on. So does her mom, who's talking about getting a second job. Vicky thinks the education she gets will be worth the cost. "A lot of people were telling me it was a great school,” she says. "I just want to get the best for my education.”

Plans: Vicky wants to major in biology, go to dental school and become an orthodontist. With a good job, Vicky hopes to buy her mom a big house. "I want to take care of my mom. I told her it's my turn now.”

Jose Perez

Jose Perez remains interested in a career that has attracted him since middle school: computer engineering.

With a high school diploma from Berry Academy of Technology, he plans to continue on the educational path his parents have encouraged since they left El Salvador in 2001.

Education is a priority in the Perez house. When Jose and his two sisters were younger, his parents, Delmi and Jose, proudly displayed their awards on a living room wall. The wall eventually became so full they had to transfer the awards to a binder.

Plans: Jose plans to attend CPCC. He hopes to transfer to UNC Charlotte. This summer, Jose will keep working as a waiter at Don Pedro in the university area. He’s also in the process of fulfilling an important goal: becoming a U.S. citizen.

Miguel Sanchez

A soldier or a violinist? When Miguel Sanchez entered high school, he stood at a crossroads.

After he’d shown talent on the violin, his mother encouraged him to follow in the footsteps of his late great-grandfather, a violinist in Mexico. But Miguel dreamed of being a soldier and serving his country.

Miguel’s determination finally won his mother over. He’s now a Garinger High School graduate. In July, he heads to boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., where he starts his new life as a Marine. He can’t wait.

In fifth grade, Miguel arrived each morning with the white shirt of his school uniform neatly tucked into his pants. Since he began kindergarten speaking only Spanish, he had to work hard to catch up.

In Garinger’s Junior ROTC, Miguel has been outstanding, says Capt. Elmore Brown, the senior Army instructor. “If I had to define him, I like to use loyalty,” Brown says.

Plans: Miguel wants to make a career out of the military. After a few years, he plans to apply to officer candidate school. “My recruiter says that’s a good idea, because most (officers) go to college, and they don’t have no clue how the lower people feel. I’m going to have a little taste of the bottom, and I’ll be like, yeah, I know what to do now.”

Jermey Steele

Jermey Steele didn’t graduate this year because he has failed some of his classes at West Mecklenburg High. But he’s not giving up.

“I want to finish so it’ll be easier for me to get a job and stuff,” he says. He hopes to graduate next year.

In fifth grade, Jermey had a disarming smile and irrepressible personality. Walking down the hall, he’d stop the principal to compliment him on his tie. When I visited his classroom, he’d drape his arm around my shoulder to ask how I was doing.

Jermey struggled with academics, and that hasn’t changed. “What’s hard is still the same thing,” says his mom, Sebrina Steele. “Staying focused, staying on task.”

Jermey’s fifth-grade classmates might not recognize him. He sports dreadlocks, seven tattoos and a pierced lip. When we talked recently, I asked about a photo I’d seen on his Facebook page. In it, he’s giving the finger to the camera. I told him I remembered what a sweet boy he was. The photo made me wonder if he was angry.

Jermey told me not to worry. He’s not angry. “I’m just posing for the picture,” he said. “I’m still that sweet boy.”

Plans: Jermey is focused on graduating from high school. He’s not sure what he wants to do after that.

Anthony Stephens

Think of America’s best-loved underdogs. Boxer Rocky Balboa, of course. And Rudy, the kid who worked for years to play on Notre Dame’s football team.

It’s these guys that Crossroads Charter English teacher Jeremy Russell invokes when he describes Anthony Stephens.

Anthony gives his all. “Nobody’s going to outwork him as far as work ethic,” Russell says. “That’s Anthony in a nutshell.”

That was Anthony in fifth grade, too. He was the kid who unstacked chairs in the morning without being asked and said “Bless you!” when a classmate sneezed. He didn’t always have the right answer, but when he nailed one, he bounced in his seat for joy.

Sickle cell anemia and asthma sometimes kept him out of school, but when he recovered, he’d be back on the basketball court at recess, playing hard.

Two years ago, Anthony was in danger of failing at Garinger. So he transferred to Crossroads, a charter school in Charlotte for students who’ve had trouble succeeding elsewhere.

He liked it. “The teachers care more,” he says. “There’s more individual attention.” Another plus: Russell, his English teacher, reminded him of Merritt. “He’s motivational,” Anthony says.

Plans: Anthony graduated June 14. He wants to enlist in the military. He’s interested in pursuing nursing.

Lily Valencia

On weekends these days, you’ll find Lily Valencia at Sassy Salon on Independence Boulevard, shampooing or blow-drying a customer, sweeping hair off the floor, doing whatever she’s asked.

Lily, newly graduated from Butler High, plans to start beauty school this summer.

Until high school, Lily went by her full name, Liliana. She changed because Liliana seemed too long. That’s not all that has changed since elementary school.

When she moved from Mexico to Charlotte with her family at age 5, she didn’t speak English. In fifth grade, Lily was quiet, still absorbing her new country’s language. In middle school, she began to blossom. By high school, in art and crafts classes, she realized she liked doing creative work with her hands. She took a photo class and worked with film cameras.

“I like it because I feel like I can be very creative at it,” she says. “I like everything that deals with art.”

At Sassy Salon, co-owners Van Trang and Nancy Marin are mentoring her. Marin says they hope she’ll work for them when she graduates from beauty school.

“She’s come out of her shell a lot,” Marin says. “People ask for her because she gives good conversation. I see a bright future for her.”

Lily has taken to heart advice from her father, George Valencia, a house painter, who has urged her to find a career where she can wake up each day happy to go to work. “I love my job,” she says.

Plans: After finishing beauty school, Lily wants to work as a stylist. Eventually, she’d like to run her own salon.

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