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Missouri teen finds second chance through mentor

Friday, December 24, 2010 | 6:00 a.m. CST
In this photo taken on Dec. 14, Jeremy Williams, left, jokes around with Raymond Spears at their home in St. Louis. Williams had not been in school for three years while living in Cahokia. After Jeremy's mother abandoned him, Raymond Spears, a family friend, took him into his home and enrolled him in Roosevelt High School.

ST. LOUIS — Jeremy Williams walked into Roosevelt High School in August, wondering what it would take to survive.

He hadn't seen a classroom in three years.

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He'd been running the streets and living with an aunt who rarely bothered to buy him food. Over the summer, she abandoned him in Cahokia.

"Basically I was on my own," he said. "Nobody cared what I do or what I say."

But now Jeremy, 16, had a home again, thanks to a man who'd lost a son and found Jeremy alone. And, for the first time since sixth grade, Jeremy was in school.

By definition, Jeremy entered St. Louis Public Schools as a homeless student — one of 1,714 enrolled in the city school system this fall. A small fraction of those students are homeless in the classic sense of the word, living on the streets or in shelters. More often they're sharing housing with friends or relatives. Some live in motels, camping grounds or trailer parks, meeting the federal definition of homelessness in other ways.

They are among the most imperiled students — the most likely to fail state exams, to be absent and to drop out.

Programs are available to help them. But in Jeremy's situation, his safety net was a person outside the system who cared enough to reach out and help.

Even so, Jeremy's path to this point was a meandering one.

Jeremy's aunt assumed custody of him and his sisters when their mother could no longer care for them. Jeremy remembers bringing home report cards, but some time in fifth grade, no one cared to see them, Jeremy says.

A little more than a year ago, Raymond Spears began renting a room from Jeremy's aunt in her white wood frame house on Howell Street in Cahokia. Spears, who didn't have much money, was working at ConAgra in Affton and often returned from his shift at around midnight to find that Jeremy, 14 at the time, hadn't eaten all day.

"I never saw anyone in that house make a meal for everyone," Spears said.

Other adults shuffled in an out of the house. Alcohol and drugs were more common in the house than food, Spears and Jeremy said. Jeremy said he would stay in his room and cry silently, wishing his life would improve.

"I had no one standing behind me," Jeremy said.

Over the summer, Spears moved into a new apartment — a one-bedroom in a red-brick building near the old Lemp Brewery in St. Louis. He returned to the white wood frame house in Cahokia to pick up the rest of his belongings.

That's when he found Jeremy abandoned and alone. His aunt moved into a smaller house and told him, and everyone else in the house, not to come along, Jeremy said.

"I've got my own life to live, but I couldn't see him being like that," Spears said.

He urged Jeremy to come with him. He started talking to Jeremy about school and college.

Spears, 48, is a father of three. Two of his children live in California, where Spears lived until his mother in St. Louis became ill nine years ago. Spears returned to the area to care for her, and stayed. It was during that time that his middle child, Gino, was shot in the back as he walked home from church in California. It was mistaken identity, Spears said.

In Jeremy, Spears saw another son, someone to whom he could be a mentor.

"I always told him, when I get ready to leave, if you don't have nowhere to go, you can come with me," Spears said. "And no matter what my struggles are, we'll struggle together. You'll be able to do the things I see in you."

Their living room has a small television. A small mattress against the living room wall is where Jeremy sleeps. He does homework on the small round table in the kitchenette, using light from a lamp with no lamp shade.

Spears lost his job in August but recently found temporary work in shipping and receiving at Ronnoco Coffee Co.

Next year, his daughter graduates from high school in California. Spears wants to take Jeremy to the ceremony.

Roosevelt High is an architectural landmark on the south side of Tower Grove Park, a comprehensive high school meant to serve the needs of all students. Learning there can be an uphill battle.

Inside his physical science class one recent morning, Jeremy hovered over a sheet of notebook paper with a pencil in hand. A girl slept in the back of the room. Desks were scattered. Students horsed around, talking and laughing louder than teacher Thomas Willis could talk over.

"Get off the tabletops," Willis barked. "Montel. Montel! All right folks, we only have a short period of time."

Jeremy ignored the ruckus. He focused on the formulas on the chalkboard, his brown fleece jacket zipped and his blue backpack on his back. Nathan Shea, a teaching assistant, sat beside him, using an imaginary football to explain the fundamentals of kinetic energy.

"The ball is in your hand, that's potential energy," said Shea, with his hand cupping an imaginary football. "When you let it go, that's kinetic energy."

Jeremy thought about this and nodded, erasing marks he'd made on his paper earlier. First quarter, he had an F in this class. Second quarter, he pulled a C.

"It was hard at first," Jeremy said. Then he broke into a grin. "It's kind of coming to me now."

Educators say there is no way to know how many children are like Jeremy, kids who disappear from the education system for years. Every now and then, one will resurface. Getting them through school, though, can be a challenge.

"The average kid, once they're this far behind, they say forget it," said Diedre Thomas-Murray, coordinator of Students in Transition for St. Louis Public Schools.

Jeremy asked to be enrolled as a sophomore as most other kids his age. School officials enrolled him as a freshman.

Since August, Jeremy has been waking at 5 a.m., catching the school bus and going to class. After school he takes a class in resume writing, interviewing and job preparedness. He has just turned 16 and hopes to get a part-time job soon.

"I feel good about myself," he said. "Most people aren't going to make that change. Without an education, I wouldn't go anywhere or do anything."

On a recent evening, Jeremy sat inside the apartment and ran through his list of classes — PE, physical science, art, algebra, computer applications, social studies, French and literature. He knows some French — mostly hello, goodbye and a few basic exchanges. He now understands decimals, percentages, the basics of algebra.

Computer class has been a struggle, though. Up until now, he's never spent much time with one.

His teacher, Matthew Aiken, is a first-year teacher. He wonders if he's making any connection at all with his students. "A lot of them have given up," Aiken said. Jeremy "pushes himself. He realizes what he's in school for."

For the first time, Jeremy's focus is on more than just surviving. He's slowly making friends at Roosevelt. At the beginning of the year, he ate lunch in his algebra classroom. Now he dines in the lunchroom. He has a girlfriend.

He worries about finances. He's thinks about his family — his aunt, sisters and mother, and worries when months pass without hearing from them.

In Jeremy's head is a playbook of the next few years: "finish school, go to college, finish that, then start my career."

He wants to become a detective.

In early November, Jeremy moved toward that goal when he brought home his second report card.

"Take a look at this, Ray," he said, handing Spears the piece of paper.

His D's and F's from first quarter had become mostly B's and C's.

And in algebra, there was an A.

"I was shocked," Spears said.

Spears wished he had the money to take him to dinner "to how him how glad I was of how he did," he said.

For now, the A itself would have to do.


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