In their national television debut on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" Tuesday, Darius Smith and Jaheim President only got to tell a fraction of their stories.

Darius and Jaheim, both seniors at Ashley Ridge High School in Summerville, earned cheers and tears from the studio audience as they found out they were getting full rides to attend the College of Charleston, and again as their host handed them both $20,000 checks to help support their education.

"We weren't able to say as much as we wanted to say, but that platform at that level had people asking questions," said Darius, back in Summerville on Friday after a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles.

"The whole Ellen thing, that was just the beginning," added his classmate Kyle Fersner.

For starters, Darius and Jaheim are just two members of a cohort of young, black future teachers graduating from Ashley Ridge this year after participating in the teacher cadet program. This fall, Darius, Jaheim, Kyle, Dennis Wright and De'Marr Proctor-Floyd will all enroll as education majors at the College of Charleston. A sixth student, Bernard Johnson, will study elementary education at Morris College.

The students are looking at entering the profession in the midst of an ongoing teacher shortage that affects nearly all subject areas and regions of the state. The latest annual report from the S.C. Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement showed that teacher vacancies were on the rise, young teachers were quitting in droves, and the number of South Carolina students completing teacher education programs had declined by one-third since 2013.

There was another reason the Ashley Ridge students' choice stood out: Minority males are historically underrepresented in the classroom. Black and minority men held fewer than 4 percent of the roughly 51,000 teaching positions in the state last school year, according to data compiled by CERRA, and some school districts had no black men working in classrooms at all.

Searching their memories Friday afternoon, none of the students could recall having more than one or two black male teachers in their entire educational careers. Some had none.

"Seeing someone who looks like you, it creates a sense of comfort, and any time you're comfortable in the classroom, it makes learning easier," De'Marr said.

There is research to back up that sentiment. A January working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, based on a sample of Tennessee students, found that black students who had at least one black teacher in kindergarten through third grade were more likely than their peers to graduate from high school and enroll in college.

The students had hoped to delve into all of that context on DeGeneres' show. They had already spoken at length on the need for more minority teachers at meetings of the Dorchester District 2 School Board this year, and one of their classmates had even spelled it out in a letter to her in February.

The classmate, Tatiana Brown, submitted a letter to the show's producers outlining the students' advocacy and their plans to enter the teaching profession. They spoke at length with producers in Skype interviews before they selected the two students to have on the air. (Tatiana is also heading to C of C this fall to study education.)

"When I saw the show, I was honestly disappointed because they weren't able to talk about all of the stuff that I included in the letter," Tatiana said.

Ashley Ridge High School

Ashley Ridge High School teaching students work with special education students Friday, March 15, 2019. They're part of a young, black cohort of future teachers at Ashley Ridge High School, and they are exactly the teaching talent that a statewide initiative called Call Me Mister hopes to recruit. Brad Nettles/Staff

Still, she said she was excited to see her classmates on the air, and they all determined not to let the opportunity go to waste. The students have been giving interviews all week, including on the hip-hop radio station Z93 Jamz Friday morning.

Once they get to college, all six students plan to participate in Call Me MISTER, a South Carolina-based program for recruiting and training black and minority males entering the teaching profession. Founded in 2000 at Clemson University to address the state's lack of men of color working in the classroom, the program has produced 237 certified graduates to date.

The program's organizers can now make an impressive boast: 100 percent of the graduates are still working as educators, nearly all of them in South Carolina. Some have gone on to become principals or college professors, but the majority are working in classrooms.

Roy G. Jones, who directs the Call Me MISTER program at its Clemson headquarters, said he enjoyed seeing the Ashley Ridge students in the spotlight this week.

"It raises a heck of an expectation, not only for the program but for them," Jones said.

Call Me MISTER has an annual state budget of about $1.5 million, covering programs at 24 colleges across South Carolina. State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman has proposed expanding the program based on its previous successes, and the College of Charleston's Call Me MISTER director lamented that he had to turn away applicants to the small program this year.

The students in Ashley Ridge's teacher cadet program credited their teacher, Victoria Merritt, for showing them what a teaching career really looks like. The students have visited private, Catholic and Montessori schools, and they have even worked as student teachers with some of their own favorite teachers from their childhood.

Kyle said he would have laughed if someone asked him to consider teaching a year ago.

So what happened?

"She happened," Kyle said, pointing to Merritt.

A turning point came on a teacher cadet trip to observe classrooms in an elementary school. A cousin had just braided Kyle's hair over Thanksgiving break, and one of the elementary students was gawking at his long, dark hair.

"One of the kids was like, 'Oh, you look like a rapper, you look like Lil Pump.' I was like, 'Oh. ... I'll take this and rework what you said,'" Kyle said. "I'm here because I want to be a teacher. I'm studying Mr. Hearn, I'm studying your teacher. I'm here as a teacher, not as a rapper."

"Telling them that, you see their minds changing," Kyle said.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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