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Cover Story - Posted December 23, 2016 9:13 a.m.
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Photo by Shannon Richardson

The Road out of Poverty

Pastor Anthony B. Harris effects change through education for Amarillo’s impoverished youth

From his church office at the corner of NW 14th Avenue and Rusk Street, a few blocks away from Carver Elementary School, Pastor Anthony B. Harris is always thinking about the people in his neighborhood. Specifically, those living within a five-mile radius from St. John Baptist Church. Addressing the influence of poverty upon education has been central to his decades of ministry.

Some of Amarillo’s wealthiest families live less than two miles from St. John. For families in the spacious homes in the Tascosa Golf Club and the La Paloma development, attending college after high school isn’t just an option for teenagers – it’s an expectation. “Their parents are professionals,” he explains. When kids ask Mom or Dad how they got to where they are today, university attendance is a central part of the story. “They say ‘I went to college and that’s where you’re going.’”

Children naturally follow their parents’ example.

The homes immediately surrounding St. John, an institution in the North Heights neighborhood, are much older than those near the country club. For the most part, North Heights residents aren’t professionals or business owners. Some lack full-time employment altogether. Those who are employed work hard to support their families as low-income, blue-collar laborers. They work behind the counter at small businesses or restaurants. They wash dishes. They struggle. “Kids can only dream for that which they have seen,” Harris says. “When you talk to those kids about college, they don’t have parents’ support. They’re living with aunts or grandmothers or someone. Whoever they’re living with told them to just go work at McDonald’s because they’re not smart enough for college.”

These parents and caregivers don’t expect their kids to go to college because they didn’t go to college.

Again, children naturally follow their parents’ example.

Harris, who has a master’s degree in biblical studies, is not OK with that. “Especially in poverty and depressed areas, education is their way out,” he says. “It’sx their opportunity to bring themselves out of poverty. Without it, I believe you’re setting yourself up for failure. Everywhere I have pastored, that’s been at the forefront of my pastorate – to help the downtrodden to come up out of their poverty.”

It’s a daunting task. When Harris arrived at St. John, becoming the sixth pastor in the church’s 56-year history, a demographic study informed him that 16,000 high school dropouts lived within that same five-mile radius. “If there are that many dropouts here, those are parents that cannot or will not assist in their children’s education,” he says. Those children will also be at risk of dropping out, ensuring that the cycle of poverty continues. “College is not the norm,” he says. “When they have seen cycles of drug addiction, alcoholism, single-parent homes, mothers or aunts having children at an early age – when they are 12 and 13 and their parent is only 12 or 13 years older than them – living in poverty is all they know.”

Harris wants them to know more. He believes education, especially postsecondary education, is the solution to that problem.

A Personal Struggle
His own education didn’t come easily to Harris. For one thing, he’s dyslexic – a little-known and rarely acknowledged disorder during the 1960s, when he started school. “I struggled mightily in elementary school,” he says. “When I was in the second grade, my teacher told my mom – with me present – that I was illiterate, dumb, and would never graduate or make it on my own. They were wasting my time and I shouldn’t go to school.”

Having heard that, Harris lost interest in school, figuring he wasn’t the kind of kid who would ever graduate, much less succeed. Then, in seventh grade, he met Mr. Thompson, an English teacher who was also the football coach. “He said I would have to do better [in school] if I wanted to play sports. I told him what my second-grade teacher told me. He said, ‘Anthony, that’s not true. You work hard and I’ll work with you.’”

That was a turning point for the young Harris. He just needed someone to believe in him, someone to reverse the negative expectations that his early teacher had placed upon him. Mr. Thompson became Harris’s mentor, working with him until the young man finally began to succeed in school. “I worked hard and graduated high school with a 3.87 grade average,” the pastor says. After graduation, he took the next steps. College. Seminary.

It was the start of something that changed his family. All seven of his siblings attended college. All of Harris’s six children (one is deceased) went to college, too, with the youngest currently pursuing EMT certification at Amarillo College. The next generation is following that lead. One of Harris’s granddaughters attends West Texas A&M University, and another is at the University of North Texas.

With the help of one teacher, Harris built postsecondary education into his family’s enduring legacy. He saw that single act of kindness and encouragement transform his own life, the lives of his children, and the future of his grandchildren. Now, Harris wants St. John, and its associated ministries, to provide that exponential boost to a new generation of students in Amarillo.

“That’s why I’m passionate about this,” he says.

A Multi-Faceted Approach
After the demographic study, one of the first things Harris did as pastor at St. John was explain his passion for education to church members. Following his lead, the church implemented a program to help adults prepare for the GED as part of Amarillo’s No Limits No Excuses program, including a remedial reading program for the children of those GED students. “If you can’t read, you’re at a disadvantage, so that’s what we did first,” he says.

Then, Harris assembled a group of church volunteers to enter local schools as mentors, partnering first with Horace Mann Middle School. “We go there twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays at lunchtime,” he says. They meet with a regular group of boys and girls at the school, discussing the children’s future plans, career options, and the education or training necessary to meet those goals. “We talk about what is their dream and how do they plan to achieve that? We want to be positive role models.”

Not every child has a positive role model – especially adults who show up every week and maintain a reliable presence in his or her life. “Even at Mann, we ask kids what’s their plan for life, and I’ve had some say ‘I’m going to be a drug dealer’ – because a family member does that, even though [that person] may be in jail,” he explains. When children are looking up to those kinds of non-involved, negative influencers, a more constructive presence can be powerful. “A lot of times we have become more than mentors. We go to their sporting events because so many of those kids don’t have parents’ support.”

In the process, Harris saw these weekday efforts begin to bleed into the church’s weekend schedule. “I was curious about how we could better prepare our young people and get them excited about postsecondary education, whether it be certificates, credentials, truck driving, welding, or whatever,” he says. Conversations with Annette Carlisle, a certified poverty coach and then-member of the AISD school board, led to a meeting with Doug Curry, the AISD No Excuses coordinator.

Founded by author and educator Damen Lopez, the No Excuses University (NEU) program is a national network of schools that prepare children, from preschool onward, to think about pursuing college education. These conversations are part of these schools’ curriculum, along with intentional classroom discussions. With around two dozen local schools participating, Amarillo has become a hub in the NEU network.

Harris saw an opportunity to promote college education among students attending the church on Sundays. Taking a leap of faith, St. John applied to become the first church in the United States to join the No Excuses Network. NEU founder Lopez and his staff accepted the application without hesitation. “The great thing about it is Pastor Harris and his team have the opportunity to really make this what it is – what it means to be a No Excuses University church,” says Lopez, who believes college preparation needs to happen continuously – not just during weekday school hours. Churches like St. John can fill the gaps. “It’s not always something you can do five days on and two days off. Second-generation college students are talking about their careers and college seven days a week. Having those conversations over a weekend is a powerful thing.”

Nationally, educators took notice when they learned that a church in Amarillo had joined the acclaimed No Excuses network. “At conferences, I have a lot of people comment and ask if I can help connect them with Pastor Harris,” Lopez says.

The Next Step
Given St. John’s growing reputation among educators across the U.S., Harris knew he needed to take the college preparation task seriously. Discussing college and career goals in Sunday School or from the pulpit wouldn’t be enough. “We needed to do something unique and identifiable to us,” he says.

He and his volunteers were already working hard to expose young people to college through conversations and mentoring. What if they were to literally expose them to college? He knew of kids from higher-income families who began touring college campuses during their junior and senior years. The impoverished kids in his community wouldn’t have that opportunity. Most of them had never even been outside the Amarillo city limits.

“That’s when I started thinking we have to get these kids out of Amarillo,” he says. “Let them see that the world and this country is bigger than Amarillo. I felt it was critical that we expose them to different things so they could dream.”

He envisioned a college bus tour for students who had otherwise never even set foot on a college campus. He’d never heard of anyone else doing such a thing, but Harris could definitely envision the potential impact: Some teenagers may not see themselves in college until they physically visited a college, walked through its buildings, and met its students and faculty.

He spoke to a church member named Lanitra Barringer – a former science teacher at Travis Middle School who had been a first-generation college student herself – and asked her to help make it happen. Barringer jumped at the opportunity. “If only one student goes to college, or I make a difference in the life of one student, then I’ve done what I needed to do in life, what God has given my purpose to be,” she says.

After a fundraising banquet and several months of planning, Harris and Barringer scheduled the first bus tour during the AISD Spring Break in early 2015. They took 28 students to five colleges in Texas: Southern Methodist University, the University of North Texas, the University of Houston, plus the historically black Wiley College in Marshall and Texas Southern University in Houston.

It wasn’t just any road trip. On Harris’s instruction, everything during the week was top quality, from the wifi-equipped, luxury chartered bus to the hotels and restaurants along the way. “I wanted everything to be five-star, so they see when you work hard, you can stay in this type of hotel and eat at a five-star restaurant,” the pastor says. “When you go to school and do the things that are necessary to be successful and independent, you can obtain this.”

The experience was an eye-opener for students who had never left north Amarillo. That first tour included stops at art galleries as well as the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at SMU. “We wanted to expose them to culture and science and the arts. We wanted it to be a realistic and holistic experience, so they got a view of traveling and what it’s like to be exposed to various cities and cultures,” says Harris.

An Educational Buy-In
After the success of that first tour, Harris and Barringer decided to separate the experience from St. John Baptist Church. After all, their passion was for the young people in a five-mile radius of St. John, and beyond – not just those who showed up on Sunday mornings. They created a non-profit called Nehemiah Project, an umbrella organization that contains the College Success Initiative (CSI), a year-long program with the bus tour as its highlight. Barringer became the program director for Nehemiah Project and the coordinator of CSI.

In 2016, the program took 38 students on another bus tour. This one visited Texas Tech University, Texas State University, Huston-Tillotson University, and the University of Texas, incorporating a tour of the Texas state capitol while in Austin. Next year’s tour is headed to Oklahoma and open to any 10th- to 12th-grade student who participates in the College Success Initiative program.

While the week-long tour costs CSI more than $1,100 per student to cover meals, hotels, transportation, and more, each participant only has to pay $100 to attend. That is, if they meet certain milestones during the year. These prerequisites include monthly community service events, regular meetings, and fundraisers throughout the year. “If they don’t [meet the requirements], then they pay $300 and write me a 300-word essay on how the bus tour will benefit them,” says Barringer. “That’s to give them a buy-in. When you make everything free, everyone wants to go. When they buy-in for their education, it makes a difference.”

The organization also solicits grants and donations all year long. Local businesses, organizations, and individuals can sponsor a student to attend.

By all accounts, the bus tour works. “Three of our students have already applied to Tech just from seeing the campus and knowing there are other options outside of Amarillo,” says Barringer. Another attended the Air Force Academy. Still others end up at local schools. One of those is Shannon Thomas, a long-time St. John member who received a scholarship to WTAMU. She’s getting her basics out of the way in Canyon before transferring to Huston-Tillotson, a private, historically black college in Austin, where she’ll be pursuing a degree in social work.

Thomas hadn’t even heard of Huston-Tillotson until touring the campus last year. “Once we visited and got on campus, I got to see what it’s all about and I was like, OK, I would love to go here,” she says. Thomas is the first in her family to attend college, and says without the bus tour, her options wouldn’t have been nearly as broad.
“She is really flourishing,” Barringer says.

CSI isn’t just for older high school students. More than 81 young people, from sixth grade to college, are participating in the program today. Last year’s bus tour included students from Palo Duro, Caprock, Randall, Tascosa, and Amarillo High School. Needless to say, it has grown far beyond that five-mile radius from North Heights. “This program is not for a particular area,” says Harris. “It’s for all of Amarillo. We are getting kids participating in the program that are in the south part of town, too.”

All participants attend tutorials and Saturday sessions twice a month to help prepare them for postsecondary education. The older high school juniors and seniors learn about writing college admissions essays and applying for scholarships. The younger sixth- and seventh-graders talk about jobs, salaries, and how education can help them reach those goals.

Parents participate, too. “Every quarter we have a parent meeting,” says Barringer. “We discuss the importance of their input and, even if they don’t understand the whole process, they’re able to sit in on our meetings to learn more.”

Students who eventually do enroll in college are matched with a mentor. Pastor Harris remembers being overwhelmed when he entered a 1,200-student classroom during his freshman year at Washington State University. “That had me questioning whether I should even be there,” he says. He hopes mentors will provide a steady, calming presence during what can be a period of uncertainty and transition. “Those mentors will be with them all four years, helping them get what they need to take the pressure off,” he says.

Planning for Tomorrow
Though the program continues to grow, Barringer and Harris are already looking further down the road, hoping to start a Nehemiah Project after-school program later this year. Called STEP (“strengthen, teach, equip, prepare”) Academy, the program will offer tutorials and other education to supplement what children receive during the school day. After instituting a math and reading lab last summer, plans to add a summer reading program this June are also in the works.

All of this is driven by Harris’s belief that education is one of the most powerful things a community can give a child. As a religious leader, he’s not afraid to blend the separate spheres of church and state to make that happen.

This thrills educators like Lopez at No Excuses University. “For the past two decades, schools have discouraged faith-based organizations to stay away and teachers have been taught not to bring that into the classroom,” he says. “We believe the exact opposite. Anyone who has a heart for changing the lives of kids fits perfectly in line with us.” He believes Harris’s college bus tour is an idea at the heart of that passion. “That’s not something that can happen in schools, because it requires weekends or summers. [Harris and CSI] are uniquely equipped to do it. I love that about them.”

Harris, for his part, just wants to help the people in and around his church. He believes, by doing so, he is making Amarillo a better place – and he knows long-term change begins with the city’s young people. “I’m a firm believer that our city is only as strong as our weakest community,” he says. “It’s important that we catch our youth and get them integrated into this program. I hope people will see this and want to come alongside of us.”

The Reality of Poverty

Harris tells an unforgettable story to emphasize the differences between teenagers living in poverty compared to students raised in middle-class environments. During Harris’s first year as a mentor at Horace Mann, a faculty member asked him to speak to a young seventh-grade student who’d been placed in detention. Harris approached the boy, who was fast asleep against a desk. The pastor woke him up.

“I asked him what was going on and he said I wouldn’t understand,” says Harris. Refusing to talk at first, the boy eventually opened up. He told Harris a harrowing story.

The night before, the seventh-grader’s mother had been beaten by her boyfriend. She called 911, but as the ambulance arrived to transport her to the hospital, she worried that Child Protective Services would take away her children. So she sent the boy, his first-grade sister, and a 3-year-old into hiding. “She told him to go sleep in the car in the alley,” says Harris. “It was winter.” The boy spent a frigid night huddled with his siblings in a parked car. The next morning, on his own, he took the toddler to a babysitter and dropped the first-grader off at school.

He arrived to Horace Mann 30 minutes late. That’s why he received detention. That’s also why he was fast asleep.

“How does he keep up his attendance rate when he’s strapped with that kind of responsibility?” Harris asks. “Kids in south Amarillo aren’t being asked those kinds of things. These are our challenges on this side of town.”

Get Involved

“There’s a place for anyone who wants to work with the program,” says Harris. “We are always looking for volunteers to help.” From chaperoning the bus tour or sponsoring a participant to walking alongside new college students as a mentor, Nehemiah Project welcomes individual and corporate support. Harris estimates every bus tour totals around $50,000. To donate or get involved, click the College Success Initiative tab at nehemiahpjct.org.

by Jason Boyett

Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.
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