From birth, the statistics stacked up against Rashawnna Hawkins.
Her parents weren't married and didn't live together.
At first, she shuttled between them, then an aunt took her in.
“It was back and forth,” the 18-year-old recalls.
When she was about 6, she settled in with her grandmother.
Rashawnna's mother didn't work. She lost touch with her father and doesn't recall what he did for a living.
To make matters tougher, she grew up in Chicora-Cherokee, one of North Charleston's most drug- and crime-infested neighborhoods, a community with one of the highest child-poverty rates in South Carolina.
Statistically, that background presents a recipe for disaster for many children. The outcome can be seen in all too many of Rashawnna's teenage neighbors and hundreds of other children growing up in high-poverty areas of North Charleston, Charleston and Charleston County.
Indeed, the stark impact of poverty on education dramatically plays out in Charleston County's public schools, which spend more per student in local money than all but three other districts in the state.
A future in art
The county boasts some of the state's best high schools, but the extra money in local spending hasn't turned around three of the state's worst-performing high schools, Burke, Stall and North Charleston. They serve high-poverty urban areas of Charleston and North Charleston, and Rashawnna normally would have attended one of them.
Educators generally agree that poverty does not automatically have to result in poorly educated children, but Charleston County's failure to turn around those three high schools illustrates the barriers and shows that money alone is not the answer.
Today, Rashawnna holds a 3.2 grade-point average at academically rigorous Military Magnet Academy, where she should graduate this spring with plans to study art in Atlanta at Savannah College of Art and Design. She also applied to the College of Charleston, but wants the intensity of an art-focused college.
She wishes she had gone to Charleston County's School of the Arts middle and high school to get a deeper background in art. However, after elementary school she followed along when friends wanted to go to Military Magnet Academy.
Rashawnna credits the military academy for instilling her with the self-discipline and academic skills to make it in the real world. The state ranks the academy as the best performing high-poverty high school in South Carolina.
She also credits her grandmother with providing her the stability and security that enabled her to avoid the pitfalls other kids encounter in Chicora. She spent many boring afternoons after Chicora Elementary School let out sitting home alone because her Granny didn't like for her to go out into the neighborhood.
One day an aunt told her Granny about after-school academic and training programs offered through Metanoia, an outgrowth of an anti-poverty effort by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. It had recently set up shop in Chicora-Cherokee in classrooms and offices provided by St. Matthew Baptist Church on Reynolds Avenue.
It opened in Chicora-Cherokee because the fellowship discovered it had among the highest levels of child poverty in the state.
Many anti-poverty nonprofits hand out food, clothing or offer shelter. Not Metanoia. Instead, it attempts to help people help themselves, with academic tutoring and leadership skill development for children, and home-ownership and business training for adults. The organization also invests in efforts to revitalize businesses in the community.
Delores Hawkins, Rashawnna's Granny, said the program offers much-needed after-school support for neighborhood kids. It provides help with homework and development of craft skills, such as making jewelry, and does so in a safe environment with a touch of religion''.
Rashawnna jumped at the chance for something to do after school. She had always been a good student, but Metanoia exposed her to new concepts and skills to tackle in a fun, interesting way that challenged her.
Despite nearing graduation at Military Magnet, where she holds the rank of second lieutenant, Rashawnna does not see a military career in her future. “I'd be scared to shoot at people.”
She also doesn't like the uniforms and button-down grooming. She prefers stylish clothes and flashy hairstyles with her hair dyed different colors. She wants a career in the arts as a fashion designer, ideally for celebrities or, perhaps, designing costumes for theater.
But life in Chicora instilled her with a desire for financial security. She does not plan to take a risk and open her own shop or design studio. She wants to work for a company. “I just want a steady income.”
Someday, she also wants a husband and five daughters, “so I can do their hair and dress them up.” And she would like to work and build that family in Charleston, “but I want to get out of this neighborhood, and live in a nice area.”