(New Orleans, Louisiana)
His grandmother, his mother, his father, all three of his uncles, his auntie and cousin — Dwan Quinn is hard-pressed to think of a single relative who did not attend George Washington Carver High School. Located in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, the school is an ever-present fixture in the family’s stories.
“My grandma worked in the cafeteria at Carver while my mom went there,” says Quinn. “They talk all the time about the traditions that went on in that building. I saw how much fun they had with the band especially, and the football team.”
Lots of cities have a high school that’s the equivalent of Carver, where everyone knows the names of the neighborhood kids who went on to become elected officials, professional athletes, scholars or musicians. By the numbers, the schools might be failure factories. Yet they are often a community’s emotional lynchpin.
On Friday, Quinn will become his family’s first male member to graduate from high school. In the fall, he’ll be the first family member to go to college, to Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana.
And when he comes home to visit, it’ll be to a new $53 million Carver complex that already occupies a symbolic place in New Orleans’ educational landscape. He might catch a game at the Marshall Faulk Field of Dreams, an attached athletic complex named after the NFL Hall of Fame running back, who went to Carver.
During Hurricane Katrina, a breach in a nearby levee left Carver and the surrounding Desire neighborhood under eight feet of water. The resulting flood damage was so extensive that officials determined the school needed to be razed and rebuilt. At the time, the school served more than 1,300 students.
When school started the following year, Carver’s radically smaller student body attended classes in modular trailers. The school moved two more times to two more sets of trailers. Academic outcomes for the 375 students who returned were terrible. In 2012, the state-run Recovery School District asked the nonprofit that operated the city’s most successful open-enrollment school (a handful of New Orleans schools have selective admissions processes) to take over.
Equal parts skeptical and attracted, Quinn enrolled in one of the two small public charters that bear the historic name: Carver Collegiate Academy and Carver Preparatory Academy. All three schools operated by Collegiate Academies have built cultures where students focus on college. Some 98 percent of seniors at the small network’s more established Sci Academy are accepted to college.
Operating under a succession of names, since 1989 Louisiana has offered merit-based scholarships for state students to attend a broad array of Louisiana two- and four-year schools under what’s now known as the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS. Among the three requirements to qualify for the funds, students must score a 20 on the college readiness ACT exam.
The possibility he might both graduate from high school and be able to pay for college lit a match under Quinn. Prodded to name a school he hoped to attend, Quinn named Louisiana State University. It was one of the few four-year programs he could name — because of its football team.
He had left middle school years behind academically.
“At my other school, I experienced a lot of stereotypes,” says Quinn. “They see me as a young black male. They don’t expect me to be smart and respectful.”
At Carver, Quinn named LSU as his goal so many times that it had become real when he first took the ACT as a junior and scored poorly. His heart sank. “I made 15,” he says. “Everyone else was making 17 and 18. I was like, man, if they can do it, I can do it.”
It helped that he had college graduate role models like Carver Collegiate Principal Jarel Bryant. “He’s a man that I can look up to,” says Quinn. “He’s a black man that’s in the community, not just in the schools. And a perfect example. Going to Yale, and saying I can do it. Pushing me to be better.”
He took the exam again the following summer, and actually got a lower score. Genesis Medina, who teaches Spanish and ACT prep at the school, gave him a book to take home.
“I knew coming into this year I was going to have to up my game,” he recalls. “Every night I would do a few questions [from the book] and time myself on my phone.” And he challenged his friends to get together to study.
“I knew I was going to do well this time,” Quinn said earlier this school year. But he was still too scared to check. Collegiate counselor Ian Smith looked for him. “Mr. Smith came in with tears in his eyes and said, ‘Dude, you got a 20,’” he says. “I got over the hill — finally.”
It was a victory for Quinn’s entire family, which had been watching enrapt as the new Carver facility—where the two small charters will be reunited as one school community—rose from the weedy field where the storied school once stood.
No sooner had Quinn qualified for TOPS than the incentive became a cost-cutting target as Louisiana looks to make up a $600 million shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Fully funding the scholarships would cost $300 million. Bills still on the table could either raise the ACT score needed for eligibility or reduce individual awards in proportion to the shortfall.
One measure still under consideration would raise the threshold for eligibility to 22, putting a scholarship out of Quinn’s reach. The ACT score of 20 that Quinn strived for is one point below the generally accepted threshold for college readiness.
On May 10, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed Senate Bill 174, eliminating the link between the cost of tuition and the size of the TOPS scholarships. Under the new law, scholarships will not necessarily keep pace with tuition increases.
So as graduation days looms and the hopes of his entire family rest on his future, Quinn waits to see if college, the goal he refused to give up on, will remain within reach. As of press time, Louisiana state lawmakers were still debating the scholarship program’s status.
“Being the first male to graduate high school and college means everything to me and my family. I have worked really hard in school to get a scholarship,” he said. “Without it, I will have to go to school, work and take out student loan debt. This scholarship allows me to concentrate on school and realize my dream of owning my own business one day.”