When Charlotte philanthropists targeted westside schools for a $50 million push to improve the life prospects of neighborhood students, Daniel Gilmore was just the kind of kid they had in mind.
Bereaved by family tragedy and buffeted by school instability, he could easily have joined the stream of teens who were leaving West Charlotte High without a diploma. Instead, on June 14 he’ll join approximately 300 graduates who could push the Lions Class of 2017 close to what seemed then like a wildly optimistic goal: a 90 percent graduation rate.
Gilmore’s 3.0 grade-point average doesn’t put him at the top of the class. He’s not heading for an Ivy League university. But the 18-year-old leaves high school as a man who commands respect and plans to serve his country.
“He found his passion. He understands citizenship. He’s going to make an impact and he’s going to change lives,” says 1st Sgt. Larry Dennis, the first of three retired military men who put Gilmore on his path to success.
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A time of turmoil
When the donors who created Project LIFT targeted some of the city’s lowest-performing schools for intensive care, Gilmore was a student at one of them: J.T. Williams Middle School. The youngest of four siblings, he had lost his mother when he was 8 and was being raised by his grandmother.
Even as Project LIFT was gearing up to pump extras into its nine schools – digital devices for students, recruitment bonuses for top teachers, summer programs and health clinics – the recession pummeled Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. When Gilmore was in seventh grade, district leaders decided to close Williams and two other middle schools. In what is now seen as a hasty and poorly executed merger plan, Gilmore and his classmates reported to elementary schools for their eighth-grade year, sharing the hallways and lunchrooms with children as young as 4.
At the newly formed Walter G. Byers preK-8 school, where most students lived in poverty and many were homeless, teens used to lockers and independence were told to walk in lines and set a good example for the little kids.
“It was difficult,” recalls Gilmore, who says he was a hard-headed “little rascal” at the time.
And during that difficult year, his grandmother died of congestive heart failure and kidney disease. The 14-year-old Gilmore went to live with an aunt and uncle, Brooke Coleman-Gilmore and Victor Deese.
Like bowling bumpers
West Charlotte High holds a unique spot in Charlotte’s history. It was the pride of the black community during Jim Crow segregation. During court-ordered desegregation the wider community – and the nation – saw the school as a symbol of Charlotte’s resolve to make integration work.
But in recent decades it has seen most white and middle-class black families depart for other schools. When Project LIFT identified it as the focus for its efforts, fewer than 60 percent of students were graduating on time and test scores were among the district’s lowest. As the first five years of Project LIFT have played out, leaders discovered an unexpected twist: Many of their best middle-school students were applying for magnets, rather than moving up to help improve West Charlotte’s performance and reputation.
As Project LIFT draws to the end of its fifth year, challenges remain. But the climbing West Charlotte graduation rate is a point of pride: It hit 86 percent in 2016 and leaders hope to top that this year.
West Charlotte was a family tradition for Gilmore, so he never thought of opting out. Coleman-Gilmore had been in JROTC – that’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps – and suggested her nephew sign up.
Dennis remembers the youth who showed up for the freshman-year elective as shy and passive, almost reclusive. He knew Gilmore’s story and he worried: “Most kids probably would have self-destructed.”
Participating in JROTC requires discipline: You wear a uniform and keep your hair trimmed. You take orders from higher-ranking upperclassmen. You’re expected to be on time for class, show respect for your elders and behave with dignity.
Dennis and the other two instructors, Command Sgt. Maj. Alphonso Moten and Lt. Col. Darryl Owens, set the tone by addressing their cadets as adults. You get a different response from Mr. Gilmore than you do from Daniel, they say.
At first Gilmore was what the instructors call a 90-minute cadet, showing up for class but not much else. He didn’t sign up for after-school drills and projects. He was offered a chance to attend summer camp at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, but he wasn’t interested.
Moten compares the structure of JROTC to the bumpers that can be lowered across the gutters in a bowling alley, ensuring that the ball gets where it’s supposed to go.
Gilmore was watching his instructors and thinking about life. He may have been rolling slowly, but he was getting there.
Finding his mission
Despite the uniforms, the drills and the retired military instructors, JROTC is not a military recruitment program. Most students graduate to college or jobs outside the armed forces, the West Charlotte instructors say.
As Gilmore warmed to the program, his instructors were happy that he was mastering the main lesson: “It’s not about you. It’s about how many people you can help,” as Dennis says. Or in Owens’ words, “getting out of selfie mode.”
Gilmore was thinking about a career in law enforcement. But in his junior year he decided he wanted to follow the path of Dennis, Moten and Owens.
“I wanted to serve and protect my community (as a police officer). I thought, ‘Why not serve my country?’,” he recalls.
He was a 90-minute cadet no more. He started coming to school early and leaving late. He collected socks to take to hospitalized veterans in Salisbury. He planted flowers outside the school. He served a Veterans Day dinner to disabled veterans.
The summer after 11th grade he went to that camp at Fort Jackson and loved it.
His senior year he was named battalion commander, in charge of more than 120 students.
And less than a month after he graduates from West Charlotte High, he heads back to Fort Jackson, where he’ll start basic training in the U.S. Army.
Gilmore isn’t gung-ho on the combat part, though he realizes that isn’t necessarily optional. His vision is to work in human resources and retire after 20 years in the Army. After that, he’ll be eligible to teach JROTC.
The three men who have been father figures to Gilmore (whose own father, Maurice Firms, is also active in his life) won’t be there to see him walk across the Bojangles Coliseum stage. They’re leading a JROTC summer camp. But they’re plenty proud already.
And Moten has one more sports metaphor: They’ve been passing Gilmore among themselves like a baton in a relay race, always knowing they couldn’t hold on forever.
“Once we pass him off,” Moten says, “he’s going to run.”
About this series
The Observer asked readers for suggestions of standout graduates. Today, we start a series of stories about students who illustrate a range of accomplishments, including some who overcame significant obstacles.