Helena Eshun of Central High School (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)
Helena Eshun of Central High School (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

When the Maryland Department of Education released its new report card format in 2018, it featured a star rating to provide a more comprehensive look at student success such as the progress of English language learners, chronic absenteeism and other academic measures.

For high schools, one of the measures highlight graduation rates the state catalogs for schools to follow students through a cohort when they enter the ninth grade and graduate within four or five years.

The state hasn’t released graduation rates for 2019 but the figures in 2018 for Prince George’s County Public Schools reported 78.4 percent, the second-lowest in the state in front of Baltimore City.

The county’s attendance rate of 93.6 percent rests in the middle of the pack among other school districts and slightly above the state average of 93.5 percent.

The department notes a piece of advice on its website for principals: keep the focus on student achievement.

“One strategy for focusing staff and stakeholders on your student achievement goals is to display the progress toward attainment of the goals on a bulletin board, display case or school wall,” according to the department. “The display should allow staff and stakeholders to quickly see where you are, where you are heading and how the journey is going. You should not miss a communication opportunity to reinforce that your top instructional priority is improved student achievement.”

Rhetoric and recommendations aside, three Prince George’s high school seniors remain well on their way to boosting this year’s graduation percentages in three short months when they officially conclude their high school careers. And while they have yet to decide upon the higher education institution they’ll ultimately attend, the three say they’re clear about the career goals which include prosecutor, entrepreneur and pediatrician.

In honor of Black History Month, The Washington Informer interviewed Helena Eshun, Courtney Hill and Ja-Kyra White to discuss what the lessons learned and to identify the more significant influences on their young lives.

‘I’m Going to Miss Surrattsville High’

Ja-Kyra White of Surrattsville High School (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

Ja-Kyra White, 18, says she knew she wanted to work with children as a little girl, specifically as a neonatologist to help care for infants, either born with health challenges or prematurely. Her decision came after visiting some of her grandmother’s 15 grandchildren, including a set of quadruplets, in local neonatal intensive care units.

“It made my interest a little more hands-on and more than just saying, ‘Hey, I want to do this.’ I was really observing it.” Ja-Kyra said.

To ensure future success, the high school senior enrolled and continues to participate in various activities at Surrattsville High School in Clinton including serving as class president the past four years.

In the ninth and 10th grades, she labeled pills inside a pharmaceutical lab as part of the Health Occupation Program at Howard University in Northwest.

She currently takes two dual enrollment courses at Bowie State University. Upon graduating in May with about 160 others, she’ll have earned 21 college credits which include hours secured at Bowie State with her mother who’s currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education.

In between cheerleading practice alongside her younger sister, 10th grader Tiara Pinkard, Ja-Kyra serves as an intern at a local child care center learning how to work with children.

Inside the school of about 710 students, she credits art instructors Charles Griffin and MeShawn Carter as in-school influences. Besides advice on classwork and life, she said Griffin helps review fliers she produces for various events while Carter has mentored her as a Class of 2020 sponsor.

She’s clearly made the most of her four years boasting 14 acceptance letters from schools that include North Carolina A&T State University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Old Dominion University in Norfolk and Philander Smith University in Little Rock

She hasn’t chosen a school yet where she plans to study Biology but she praises Surrattsville in preparing her for a post-high school career.

“I’ve been here for four years. It’s become a routine to come here and be guided by the same people — seeing friends that I still have and talking to underclassmen and doing stuff with them. I don’t know if I’m going to miss high school but I’m going to miss Surrattsville,” she said.

‘Doing Something Big’

Courtney Hill of Northwestern High School (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

Courtney Hill recalls when he made the honor roll for the first time his freshman year at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. But the next two years his English and math classes became harder as did his teachers whom he found as “really, really, challenging.”

Still, he kept his grades high enough so he could continue to participate as a member of the school’s wrestling team. This year, injury has relegated him to the sidelines where he still cheers on his teammates.

Courtney describes his senior year at the school which has about 2,300 students as the most “laid-back year I’ve had in a long time. Something I dreamed [of] for years. It finally came to me.”

Along with a half-day schedule, he’s achieved a 3.5 grade point average. However, the impact of his academic challenges as a sophomore and junior has resulted in his current cumulative grade point average of 2.1.

Although he praises his mother as an inspiration, he also gives credit to his entrepreneurship teacher, Beverly Jackson, remaining focused on his job at Chick-fil-A and poised to pursue culinary arts after he graduates in May. He’s received correspondence from trade schools Lincoln Tech and International Culinary Center of New York City — labeled one of the best culinary institutes in the country.

But Jackson, he says, persuaded him to think bigger, thus his recent decision to apply to Prince George’s Community College, particularly after realizing it could be more affordable than matriculating at a trade school.

Courtney organized a “vision board for 2020” with a focus on learning in and out of class with the possibility of applying to community college and major in business. After obtaining an associate’s degree, he plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university.

“[Jackson] was like, ‘Why go to a trade school and only focus on one thing?’ If I’m stuck on something, [then] I’m going to be stuck on it. For her to change my mind to be an entrepreneur, it’s crazy,” he said. “I don’t want to be a guy out here who can’t sign a contract. I want to know how to read it before I sign it. I want to be one of the Black people in America doing something big,” he said.

‘I Knew That I Could Do Better’

Most high school seniors don’t spend their final year inside another building but Helena Eshun and her Central High School classmates have done just that — traveling different routes to the former Forestville High School due to ongoing renovations at their school in Capitol Heights.

“I live five minutes away from the old Central [in Capitol Heights] and I live about 20 minutes away from this Central,” Eshun said. “This school is actually bigger than the old Central but me and my peers just love the old Central because it’s home.”

The 17-year-old senior admits she endured a rough start her freshman year at Central with fights and other problems. But she received tough love from her volleyball coach, Tiffany Hall, who also serves as the school’s English chairperson.

“She sat me down and she literally yelled at me and had me crying,” Helena said. “She knew my siblings because they went to Central before me. She knew what type of family I come from. She really changed my whole perspective. I knew I could be a better student and person than who I was in the ninth grade.”

From the 10th grade on, she has improved her grades, making the honor roll, participating in numerous school activities and joining groups which include the student government association. And, she would be chosen as the president of the Class of 2020. Additionally, she serves as parliamentarian on the school’s National Honor Society with whom she’s been a member for the past two years.

Central serves as an International Baccalaureate school with a student population of almost 800, allowing Helena to take advanced courses in chemistry, history, world literature and art.

Moreover, her perseverance has paid off with her receiving over 20 college acceptance letters that include Xavier University, Morgan State University, Norfolk State University and Stevenson University in Owings Mills. She plans to major in criminal justice, attend law school and become a prosecutor.

She says she’s leaning toward matriculating at a Maryland-based college.

“It’s more convenient for me and family. I want to be close, but not too close. I’m not [that] close with my family but I can’t leave them,” she said.

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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