Ticket out is tough, lonely ride Academic Magnet student battles odds

Jerry Manigault was intent on getting ready for an Algebra 2 exam at Academic Magnet High School during an after-school program Monday at the College of Charleston.

The distance from Jerry Manigault’s apartment to his bus stop on upper King Street is a 10-minute bike ride or 20-minute walk through Charleston’s East Central neighborhood at daybreak.

His alarm goes off at 6:50 a.m. He’s out the door by 7:15, before his mother or little sister wake up. He pedals up Morrison Drive and down Huger Street — past boarded-up houses with “no trespassing” signs and under a rumbling overpass during rush-hour traffic. The sidewalks are cracked and flanked by weeds. The mornings in January are dim and cold. Jerry wears a fraying 35-pound, 10-inch-wide backpack strapped around his chest as he rides his bike to his bus stop to school.

Jerry has to calculate his mornings carefully. If he misses the bus, he calls his mentor, Emily Abedon, a tutor at his after-school program, for a ride to Academic Magnet High School, 91/2 miles away in North Charleston. If Abedon can’t take him, the assistant principal will call Jerry a cab. Jerry’s mom doesn’t have a car. Jerry can’t pay the taxi fare himself. And Jerry, who turned 16 on Friday, knows he can’t afford to miss school.

At nationally ranked Academic Magnet, the top-performing public school in the state, Jerry is one of 18 black students and one of six in his sophomore class. In a school of nearly 650 students — where all but 105 are white, nearly half live in the suburbs of Mount Pleasant, and less than 10 percent receive subsidized lunches — Jerry stands out.

He knows the statistics about boys like him — African-American boys who live in poor neighborhoods with single parents who didn’t go to college, who policymakers and social scientists say are more likely to fail out of school. He wants to prove them wrong.

“My teachers, they say if I keep trying hard, I can be an engineer,” Jerry said.

So he arrives at school at 7:45 a.m. and he eats his school-provided breakfast. As he waits for the 8:10 a.m. bell to ring, Jerry finishes his homework or he studies at his desk in his first period class, Spanish 2 on “A” days or Honors Biology 1 on “B” days.

Jerry dreams of MIT, Princeton and Clemson. Academic Magnet, he believes, is his ticket out.

But Jerry has struggled ever since he was accepted in August into Academic Magnet, one week after the school year had already begun, after spending all summer on the waiting list. As an honors student at Burke High School’s Advanced Placement Academy, Jerry rarely studied. He could walk to school. He was surrounded by friends.

He wasn’t prepared for Magnet’s high expectations and heavy homework load. At Burke, where he said some students regularly turned assignments in late and “teachers didn’t care most of the time,” Jerry only took three core courses — World History, Honors English 2 and Biology — plus physical education and Army ROTC.

Now, Jerry takes Honors Biology 1, Honors Algebra 2, Honors Global Studies 2, Honors English 2, Spanish 2 and Art. He had to drop Introduction to Engineering in the fall because the workload from his core classes was too much.

His grades plummeted in the first quarter. His home life didn’t make going to Charleston County’s wealthiest and toughest school any easier. Jerry didn’t have a computer, so his principal gave him an old laptop to use. He didn’t have a printer either, so Abedon bought him one from Staples.

And at Academic Magnet, Jerry is isolated. Lanky and shy, Jerry doesn’t talk much. And even if he did, he said he has no close friends at school to confide in.

“If they have a pep rally, everybody sits by their friends — their close friends — and I just sit wherever,” he said. “It’s hard.”

For the past 10 years, Academic Magnet has grappled with the problem of dwindling black enrollment in a district where more than 40 percent of the students are African-American. As Magnet has risen in U.S. News & World Report’s national ranking of public schools, admissions have gotten far more competitive, said Junius Wright, an English and creative writing teacher at the school.

“It’s just disturbing because it’s gotten progressively worse every year,” he said of Magnet’s diversity. “Three years ago, I looked up all my classes and I realized I didn’t have a single African-American student.”

Applicants to Academic Magnet are judged based on their teacher recommendations, grade point average, writing sample and performance on the Measures of Academic Progress standardized assessment.

Last year, more than 500 students applied to Magnet, yet only six black students qualified and just three met the first round of admissions based on their scores. Private, magnet and Mount Pleasant schools boasted the highest acceptance rates for their students applying to Magnet, while predominately black and Title 1 middle schools had the lowest.

For instance, Academic Magnet accepted not one of the 18 students who applied last year for admission into Magnet’s freshman class from Northwoods, Sanders-Clyde or Jerry Zucker. Of the 21 applicants from Morningside Middle School in North Charleston, only one student was admitted into this year’s freshman class.

Jerry applied twice to Magnet — first when he was in the eighth grade, at the urging of his Algebra 1 teacher at Sanders-Clyde, Elana Jaret. When Jaret, a former Teach for America Corps member, arrived at Sanders-Clyde, a predominately black elementary and middle school on Charleston’s East Side, the school didn’t offer Algebra 1, a prerequisite for admission into Academic Magnet. She worried her students lacked the same opportunities as their white counterparts across the bridge.

So she started the program in 2013, her second year as a teacher, with the goal of getting all 16 of her students accepted into Magnet. That year, all of her students, including Jerry, passed the End of Course exam, half with perfect scores.

The hardest day of her life, she said, was watching her students open their admissions letters from the Magnet. Their faces fell. One student was wait-listed. The rest were rejected. Jerry was devastated.

When Jaret left to teach at a school in New Orleans, Sanders-Clyde lost its Algebra 1 program.

Michael Hemphill, an assistant professor at the College of Charleston, said the district hasn’t invested enough resources in preparing low-income students to qualify for Academic Magnet. Hemphill sits on a nine-person committee charged with reviewing Magnet’s admissions criteria and procedures in hopes of diversifying the school. He said the district should identify gifted students early and provide them with support and resources well before the application process begins to “level the playing field” between low-income and wealthy students.

“If you want to deal with it, you got to invest resources,” he said. “You got to reroute buses, and that costs, right? You got to pay for a driver. You have to invest in tutors. It’s a heavy lift.”

Jerry lives in a sprawling public housing development with his mom and little sister. His neighborhood is lined with rows of low-slung brick buildings with dark windows and rust-colored screen doors. Clotheslines stretch across small, patchy lawns. Police cruisers linger on the corners. The streets will flood during high tide and trash will bob through the water like jetsam. When Jerry was a student at Sanders-Clyde, he remembers a “Code Red” school lockdown. Someone got shot in the apartment directly across from his yard.

“I’m comfortable,” he said. “But I don’t feel like it’s safe.”

It’s quiet here during the day, but at night, Jerry can hear his neighbors on both sides of his apartment, stomping on the floors and slamming things against the walls. Studying at home isn’t easy. His mom didn’t graduate from high school and can’t help with homework. Jerry prefers to study at the downtown public library or Chucktown Squash, an after-school program at the College of Charleston for under-served children in the community. Thanks to his tutors, like Abedon, at Chucktown Squash, Jerry’s grades have improved, but he’s still struggling in a couple of classes.

“Jerry is obviously a really, really smart kid, but there’s also lots of maybe just really smart kids and Jerry — I don’t know — has some gene in him that enables him to push through,” Abedon said. “He wants it so bad.”

But on Thursday, Jerry faced yet another setback: On the day before his 16th birthday, Jerry went out to dinner with members of his church and locked his bike outside a nearby Family Dollar. When he returned, he said he found his bike seat had been stolen and his tires flattened.

“How could someone do something like this?”

Reach Deanna Pan at 843- 937-5764.