GREENVILLE– One recent Saturday afternoon, fresh off a day shift at McDonald’s, Alberto Cepeda approached his mailbox.
Amid the pile of bills and junk mail, could lay the key to the future of the Carolina High School and Academy senior’s future.
As 17-year-old Alberto peered into the mailbox, his heart sank. He knew the college mythology: A large envelope meant acceptance, and a small envelope meant denial.
Hands trembling, he pulled out what appeared to be a small envelope—until he realized it was merely folded in half.
He held the Berea College envelope up to the sunlight until he could read: “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted.”
Alberto Cepeda was going to college.
As the first generation of his family to head to college, Alberto is breaking barriers and expectations for his family and the Hispanic community in Greenville.
But it took more than Alberto’s personal drive. He said without his teachers and a vibrant school system, there might have been no envelope at all.
Sons of Greenville and daughters of Dillon
Four months before Alberto pulled that college acceptance letter out of his mailbox, Gov. Nikki Haley reminded those who attended her second inaugural just how important geography has been in the education of South Carolina students.
Greenville, a vibrant Upstate city with a widely recognized school system, figured prominently in her inaugural address as Haley outlined education hopes for her native state.
“My dreams for South Carolina know no bounds. They are as expansive as my love for this state and for the people who call it home,” Haley said.
“In the South Carolina I dream of, a daughter of Dillon starts each day with the same hope and possibility as a son of Greenville.”
But the history of South Carolina suggests that dream remains unrealized.
The battle for equal education is as old as the South Carolina colony. During colonial times, the sons and daughters of the elite planter classes were educated privately, often abroad, while the children of laborers and farmers were provided only rudimentary education skills, if any.
During the years leading up to the Civil War, enslaved African-Americans were forbidden to read and write. Even after the war, it was Northern abolitionists and sympathizers who traveled to the South to establish schools and set in motion efforts to educate the newly freed black population. Free schools were scattered around the state but available only to white children.
Even after the establishment of a public school system, the state made little progress until the 20th century. By the 1950s, with the state still dependent on subsistence farming and sharecropping, children, black and white, were not required to go to school because they were often needed in the fields. The Supreme Court decision overturning segregated schools created more havoc among lawmakers; compulsory school attendance was not reinstated until 1967, according to a study commissioned by the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement (CERRA–SC) .
In her inaugural reference to urban Greenville and the rural Dillon, Haley was recalling that long struggle as well as the 22-year legal battle to equalize funding in the public schools.
In 1993, rural school districts united to sue the state, which required districts to assume more and more of the costs of running their schools. The districts claimed their modest property tax bases were not enough to provide funding under the state’s complicated formula.
The case wound its way through the courts and finally went to trial in 2003 in Clarendon County. It became the longest trial in S.C. history at 103 days.
In December 2005, Judge Thomas Cooper ruled that schools were adequate but ordered the state to provide better early childhood education. Months earlier, a South Carolina-produced documentary, Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools, brought international attention to the issue.
Both sides appealed to the state’s high court; last November the court, in a 3-2 ruling, sided with the rural districts.
While the state Supreme Court ordered the legislature to find a remedy to equalize funding, the state of South Carolina and Haley appealed this decision, arguing that over the course of the case, the funding formula for public schools had been revised.
They also argued that the success of some students from poorer districts demonstrates the opportunities for further success. But there is no question that the success stories most often hail from affluent districts such as Greenville and Charleston.
A road to college
In a recent student council meeting at the district office for Greenville schools, Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, announced he would offer $20 to any student who could name something not controlled by the government.
After having listened to numerous valiant attempts by fellow students, Alberto raised his hand and offered a suggestion.
A friendly banter ensued and eventually Smith handed over $2—he was reluctant to cough over the $20 bill—to Alberto for his response.
Alberto was not always this outgoing and engaged, however.
His parents moved to the United States from Mexico in 1994: Alberto was born in Texas in 1997.
His family moved to South Carolina when he was 5 or 6 years old along with his two younger sisters and younger brother.
In his freshman year at Carolina High School and Academy, Alberto began to feel like he mattered.
“I remember in middle school, our principals didn’t know our names, and I hate to say it but the only way you really mattered at our middle school was if you had money or not, and unfortunately I’m not the richest of people,” said Alberto. “I think at Carolina that just went away and even if you are different we all come together to be the same group of people.”
To overcome his shyness and make new friends, Alberto ran for junior class president. He did not win but still held the position of vice president. His senior year he ran again and won.
One of his presidential duties was to sit on the school district Inter-High Council, a collaboration of student government leaders from all 14 schools. Faculty and community leaders call on Inter-High students when making decisions in the district.
Alberto said that he didn’t like talking to people but that both Inter-High and student government forced him out of his shell.
One image resonated with Alberto and inspired him to branch out.
“I remember one time I saw this picture that was like, ‘where life was happening’ and then it was like ‘your comfort zone,’” Alberto said as he traced two imaginary circles on either end of the table with his fingers. “That’s what kind of pushed me to do stuff like this.”
Alberto is proud to represent Carolina High School and Academy and to work with students from other Greenville schools to provide a safe and efficient school system.
Carolina High School and Academy has the highest poverty rate of the 14 high schools in the Greenville District, but the district has taken steps to ensure equity across all high schools.
Alberto sees the motivation of his fellow students and believes that many of them strive for college despite long odds.
For Carolina High School and Academy seniors, college is not the automatic plan.
“You can take me for example. I know that I’ve struggled my whole life, which pushes me further to be like, ‘OK, I have to go to college. I’m going to get into college. That is the next step for me in order for me to get myself out of this situation,’” Alberto said.
Alberto said that thanks to the staff at Carolina High, college is his plan.
“Carolina does a wonderful job of making you feel like they’re family and they’re there for you. It’s kind of like a home away from home,” said Alberto. “Our teachers there and our principals are super supportive.”
Alberto is particularly thankful for one teacher, who was a mentor and a major influence on his decision to go to college.
His computer teacher, Tennille Crnobrnja, helped Alberto with applications and provided him with the guidance that his family could not.
“I’m just really lucky that she was there because if she wasn’t, I feel like I wouldn’t have really applied anywhere or it would have been a lot harder for me to apply,” said Alberto.
Whether it is individual teachers or entire programs, the schools in the Greenville district aim to help students plan their future beyond the high school halls.
Graduation plus so much more
For the principals of the Greenville high schools, the goal is to help students beyond graduation day.
“We’re trying to get our kids to the point that when they leave, they will be productive members of society, so if that means they’re going to college, military or workforce, everything we are doing is working towards that goal,” said Charles Mayfield, principal at J.L. Mann High School.
One example of this is the advisory program, in which students gather once a week and work with counselors on individual graduation plans.
All eighth-grade students in South Carolina are required to create an individual graduation plan based on what each student thinks they want to do.
At Woodmont High School, students have the opportunity to be in the International Baccalaureate program and potentially earn college credits.
“I’m very pleased that if a student were to take the opportunity to do that, they get the opportunity to make the mistakes with the support of the high school before they go to college and spend a whole lot of money,” said Darryl Imperati, principal at Woodmont High School.
Now the principals and Superintendent W. Burke Royster are teaming up to pioneer an initiative called Graduation Plus.
“It is not just enough for us to educate students and bring them to the level of just a high school diploma, so we need to prepare our students to have a high school diploma plus something else,” said Eric Williams, principal of Wade Hampton High School.
The “plus something” could be a certificate from the career center enabling a student to perform a specific skill or a couple of college credits by taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes.
“If you look at all the jobs for which we can issue certificates, like welding and cosmetology, the average wage for all of these jobs is twice the minimum wage,” said Royster. “We have students prepared to go to a reasonably paying job, and once they get in that job, if they have the motivation and desire, they can advance past the entry-level jobs.”
Across the district, 81.7 percent of students graduate from high school, and of those students 80 percent go to either a two- or four-year college, with many of the remaining graduates joining the work force or the military. The state’s graduation rate for 2014 was 80.1 percent.
As the state’s largest and nation’s 45th-largest school district, Greenville teaches more than 70,000 students, all of who come from different backgrounds and require individual attention.
Greenville students are just as eager to see equal education for all and some—including Alberto—have joined Inter-High to achieve just that.
Carolina High junior wants to prove others wrong
Alberto represents Carolina High in Inter-High along with 11th-grader Xchaunxzy Chappell, who is proud to help break stereotypes associated with her school.
Carolina High defies the Greenville school’s reputation of affluence. In 2013-14, 93.54 percent of students at Carolina High and Academy qualified for free and reduced price lunch, according to Melanie Barton, executive director of the Education Oversight Committee.
Carolina High School and Academy students from high-poverty families “don’t let their parents or their family’s background affect them as much as some people think they do,” said Xchaunxzy, pronounced Chawn’-sey. “There are stereotypes all around like ‘Oh, Carolina kids won’t add up to anything,’ but really we have really dedicated students and if you need something, other students are willing to help you. So, I like that a lot.”
Xchaunxzy’s mother became pregnant with her at age 15.
“My mom had me when she was young, so people expected her to fail, but she has done really well,” said Xchaunxzy, “I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh you were the daughter of a minor, so you are bound to walk in her footsteps and fail as well.”
As a junior, she said, it is early to be applying to colleges, but she is firm in her decision to continue her education.
She prepares to be the first in her family to attend college and defy any stereotypes, with the Carolina High School and Academy staff eager to help.
“At Carolina, the staff is interested in you and want you to be the best you and go as far as you can to accomplish as much as you can,” said Xchaunxzy.
Both Alberto and Xchaunxzy expressed regret that they did not plan for college sooner in their high school careers.
“Up until this year, I was clueless as to what I was going to do. I didn’t even know college was in my reach,” said Alberto.
“Now it’s that feeling of like, ‘Yeah, I did it. I’m not another statistic. I’m not a stereotype,’” said Alberto. “And I’m not going to tell you it was something I always saw in my future. But definitely now looking back at it, knowing that I’m going to college, it makes me feel really good about myself, knowing I’m breaking boundaries for my family, for the rest of my life, for my kids.”
Alberto sees his acceptance and decision to pursue college as a positive stride for the Hispanic community, and an outpouring of support from members of that community to his parents show that many agree.
Wanderlust has struck both students as they look far beyond district lines for the next school they’ll call home.
“I’m ready to travel and meet new people and live on my own and come back with stories,” said Xchaunxzy. “I’m just excited to get out of here.”
Alberto said as much as he loves his family, he is ready to have a chance for a fresh start.
“I love the whole idea of starting over. You are going to be somewhere new for four whole years. You get to create yourself again,” said Alberto, who wants to study premedical studies and psychology when he attends Berea College in Kentucky.
While tuition bills and mystery roommates intimidate both students, they agree that through the support of their school system, they are prepared to take on all the excitement and challenges that college brings.
“Just like the state, we have to make sure that our resources are spread so that everybody has the same access,“ said Pam Mills, coordinator for the district’s government relations, citing schools as different as Blue Ridge and Carolina High.
“If you go to Blue Ridge we want you to have the same access to AP courses than if you go to Carolina,” said Mills.
The strides that Greenville has made thus far to achieve equity in education across the 14 high schools provides a glimpse into what the state and Haley could do for South Carolina education across all districts.