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1 teacher 17 students 8 years later

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Graduation day for the girl with the pink book bag

Tai-Asia Rios’ high school career culminated this spring with the typical crush of senior activities, plus one unexpected obstacle. In the middle of prom dress shopping and senior project research, she learned she and her family were being evicted from their apartment.

In 2005, when Tai-Asia first appeared in the Charlotte Observer, she was a tiny girl who arrived at Merry Oaks International Academy each morning pulling a rolling pink book bag. During that school year, I regularly visited the high-poverty school east of uptown Charlotte and wrote about Tai-Asia and her 16 classmates in Jeremiah Merritt’s fifth-grade class.

Back in fifth grade, Tai-Asia’s chances of making it to graduation seemed uncertain. Her mom, Nina Reyes, had dropped out of high school at age 16. Tai-Asia also had a learning disability, and she struggled with reading.

Classmates were in similar situations. Merritt was an outstanding teacher. But many of his students had problems that couldn’t be solved in a school year – gaping academic deficits, anger stemming from family difficulties and, most of all, poverty.

About one in four Charlotte-Mecklenburg students doesn’t graduate after four years. For students who are poor, black and Hispanic, that statistic is even higher. Still, Merritt had high hopes for Tai-Asia and her classmates. They had what he called “the right attitude,” a willingness to work hard and persevere, even when concepts didn’t come easy to them. Tai-Asia had another thing going for her: A mother who insisted that her daughter would graduate.

Falling behind early

Tai-Asia was already behind when she attended her first class at Merry Oaks in 2002. She had gone to kindergarten in New York, then moved to Charlotte with her mom and two older siblings to live with her dad, Ivan Rios. Her parents were trying to work out a life together.

Tai-Asia had transferred to Merry Oaks to repeat second grade after failing at Winterfield Elementary. For third grade, she was assigned to Kathryn Swett Shupe’s class. That would change her life.

Shupe can still picture Tai-Asia in third grade: the smallest child in the class, with a mass of long dark hair. “She has this old soul in her,” says Shupe, now an assistant principal at Whitewater Academy, an elementary school in west Charlotte. “There was just a special place in my heart from the beginning.”

Early on, Shupe suspected a reading disability. Testing confirmed it. When she met with Tai-Asia’s parents, she explained that their daughter was a visual learner. Make her draw a picture of what she just read, she told them.

Tai-Asia’s mom and dad listened carefully. Shupe saw how much they cared. “I can work with anybody,” she says, “who wants the best for their baby.”

Tai-Asia’s parents eventually split up, and she and her mother moved. Tai-Asia should have transferred to another school, but Reyes was determined to keep her at Merry Oaks. When I met them in fifth grade, Reyes, who doesn’t drive, was taking Tai-Asia to school each morning on a city bus. It was extra work, but she wanted to give her daughter stability.

Tai-Asia loved Merry Oaks. By fifth grade, Shupe, along with other teachers and staff, had become a second family. They drove Tai-Asia when she needed a ride home and kept her after school if her mom had to finish her shift at the Subway restaurant where she worked. And when Tai-Asia belted out a Mariah Carey song to win second place in the school’s talent show, they lavished her with praise.

In Merritt’s fifth-grade class, Tai-Asia thrived. Her reading level climbed by more than two years, and on her End-of-Grade reading test, she earned a passing score of 3. She left Merry Oaks on a high note.

The teacher who never left

The next seven years weren’t as smooth as fifth grade.

Tai-Asia went to J.T. Williams for middle school and had expected to start high school at West Charlotte. But when she didn’t pass her eighth-grade EOGs, the school system moved her to Midwood High, a school for ninth-graders who need extra help. She wept when she got the news. But she came to appreciate the small classes and caring teachers. “I cried because I was going, and then I cried when I had to leave.”

She moved on to West Charlotte in 10th grade but had to go to summer school to get promoted to 11th grade. Through it all, Tai-Asia’s mom reminded her that graduation was her top priority. She wanted her daughter to have an easier time than she’s had.

Kathryn Shupe reinforced that message. Although her responsibility for Tai-Asia had ended after third grade, she never left her life.

In 2008, Shupe took an assistant principal position at Druid Hills Academy, off North Graham Street and less than mile from Tai-Asia’s apartment. Tai-Asia dropped by regularly after school. There, she could use a computer, printer and the Internet, none of which she had at home.

Shupe became mentor and friend, giving Tai-Asia the academic support that middle-class kids often take for granted. She bought school supplies and paid to have Tai-Asia’s Junior ROTC uniform dry-cleaned. When Tai-Asia was assigned a science project, Shupe enlisted the help of a teacher at Druid Hills. Tai-Asia would work with the teacher after school, Shupe says, “then I’d feed her and take her home, and I’d make her write a thank-you card.”

Another hurdle

But Shupe couldn’t fix every hardship. Reyes, Tai-Asia’s mom, has struggled to stretch paychecks from low-wage fast-food and retail jobs. As a result, since Tai-Asia was little, she has been attuned to her mom’s money concerns. When she was in fifth grade, she told me she wanted to grow up to give her mom a house, a car and “her own money so she could spend it for herself.”

Last year, Tai-Asia’s family went for days without running water when they fell behind on the bill. Then, in spring, an eviction notice arrived. Reyes, who’d gotten behind on her rent, would have to scramble to find a new place before the end of April.

The stress finally got to Tai-Asia one day in English class. She put her face in her hands and cried.

When her teacher, Gifty Allen, asked what was wrong, Tai-Asia said she didn’t know how to start her senior exit project. She worried she was going to fail. She felt ready to give up. The eviction also weighed on her, though she didn’t share that with her teacher.

Allen gave her a hug, a pep talk and offered help. Tai-Asia began staying after school with Allen to research her subject, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Still, she didn’t feel confident. Dropping out crossed her mind. “I’ve been doubting myself lately,” she said in April. “The whole year has been hard.”

The weekend before her April 25 exit project presentation, Tai-Asia helped her mom pack up their apartment. Reyes had found a one-bedroom off Tuckaseegee Road. She used nearly every cent she had for the deposit.

The project presentation was scheduled for the following Thursday. As the week began, Tai-Asia still hadn’t done a key part – a video in which she explained PTSD to children. So Shupe planned a marathon video session at her house, using her iPad to record Tai-Asia. Tai-Asia worked past midnight to finish.

On presentation day, Tai-Asia arrived with note cards and a poster board with PTSD resources. She wore heels, a smart jacket, short black skirt and her hair pulled into a neat bun. Tai-Asia is still tiny – 4-feet-11– but on this day, as she delivered her report and answered judges’ questions, she was a poised young woman.

When she heard her grade the next day, she couldn’t believe it. She had scored 100.

What’s our plan?

With Tai-Asia’s biggest graduation hurdle behind her, Shupe pressed her to make post-high school plans that would give her a way out of poverty.

“To be honest, from the bottom of my heart, I want her to break that cycle so bad,” her former teacher says. “I ask her: Military or community college? I need to see you beyond this. What’s our plan? Because I’m not going to let up on you.”

Tai-Asia decided on the military. In early June, she met with an Army recruiter.

On June 8, graduation day, Tai-Asia’s dad, Ivan Rios, arrived at Bojangles’ Coliseum two hours early and claimed prime seats near the floor for the family. Shupe, of course, sat with them.

Afterward, as they snapped photos in the parking lot, Reyes embraced Shupe in a long hug. When she finally let go, her face was wet with tears.

She’s tenacious

Then Berhane Teruneh showed up. Teruneh owns a convenience store on North Tryon Street, near Tai-Asia’s old apartment. For several years, she and her mom were frequent customers, and he grew to admire Tai-Asia’s tenacity.

“She’s a little girl,” he said. “But she’s tough.”

He wanted to reward that persistence. So he rented a limousine, and on the afternoon of graduation, Tai-Asia and her mom cruised around uptown Charlotte.

I just graduated from high school! Tai-Asia yelled out the window to strangers.

Congratulations! the strangers yelled back.

Now, she was ready to begin a military career, and a financially stable life.

There is, however, another complication. During her meeting with the Army recruiter, Tai-Asia learned she couldn’t enlist because she has a tattoo behind her right ear. It’s an Arabic phrase that means inner strength, which is fitting. The Army forbids tattoos on the head.

So now Tai-Asia has revised her plans. She’ll get a job and start saving money toward tattoo removal. It may take a while. The removal process often runs more than $1,000.

It’s one more obstacle in a series. But Tai-Asia Rios has proved adept at overcoming obstacles.

She’s little. But she’s tough.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271
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