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Hard work puts three minority students ahead of the curve

Yvonne Woodfork, who graduates from East High School tonight, was raised by her grandmother, Flora Woodfork (right), who insisted she get her homework done before anything else. Yvonne credits her family and mentors from the school with helping her achieve her goals. She plans to go to college this fall. (Bob King / / 3
McKinley Sconiers-Hasan (top) and Rachel McNeil, East and Denfeld students, respectively, are graduating with 4.0 GPAs. (Bob King / / 3
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Yvonne Woodfork calls her grandmother “Mom.”

Flora Woodfork raised the Duluth East High School senior with two of her brothers after her father and several other family members moved to Duluth from the violent South Side of Chicago when Yvonne was 8 years old. Yvonne will graduate with 368 other students at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center today; it is an achievement she says she owes to Flora and her father, Willie Woodfork Sr.

“If I owe my parents anything, it’s to walk across that stage,” she said. “They moved us here for a better education. That’s all I want to give them — something to be proud of.”

The graduation rates for certain groups within the Duluth school district — such as for black, low-income and Native American students — are much lower than those of white or Asian students. And the rates for black and Native American students district-wide decreased significantly in the past year, and now sit at 47 percent and 32.5 percent. But out of those low rates still come success stories like Yvonne’s, and Denfeld High School’s Rachel McNeil and East’s McKinley Sconiers-Hasan, both of whom have 4.0 grade-point averages.

As the district works to narrow the achievement gap and raise its graduation rates, it emphasizes staff relationships with students as one of the ways to push those efforts.

“They all have different journeys,” assistant superintendent Ed Crawford said of students. “For some kids that’s the only healthy relationship they have in their lives … it’s what keeps them coming back to school every day.”

The achievement gap describes the disparity in the academic performance of student groups, most often between certain races and socioeconomic statuses. It often begins early in life, Crawford said, with a lack of early childhood education brought on by poverty.

‘Try new things’

Yvonne will head to Northland Community & Technical College in Thief River Falls, Minn., in the fall, as the second person in her family to attend college. Her older brother, Taylor Stafford, is a 2012 East graduate who is attending Evansville (Ind.) University on a basketball scholarship, after recently graduating from Eastern Arizona College with an associate’s degree.

Stafford pushed her, she said, to get good grades.

“He’s my role model,” said Yvonne, a member of the varsity basketball team. “I want to follow in his footsteps.”

But school wasn’t always easy for the C-average student. She nearly failed a math class this year when she earned an “F” during one grading period. She said her teacher, Peter Graves, “told me ‘I am not going to give up on you. I know you can do this.’ ”

She ended up with a “C” in the class. Flora says she stays on Yvonne to keep her grades up and get her homework done.

“She is one of those, she’ll do enough to get by instead of challenging herself,” she said, laughing. “When I make a few threats, the grades jump back up.”

Midway through high school, Yvonne was encouraged by assistant principal Cheryl Lien to join a student government group, and other activities, to meet new people during a tough time.

“At one point, we had a conversation, and she shared that she wanted to be something different,” Lien said. “That takes a ton of courage in a high school kid.”

Shy at first and scared to contribute, Yvonne eventually found her voice and flourished as a member of East’s Executive Board. Historically, not many students of color have been part of that group, Lien said, and it was a group that Yvonne had no ties with at the start. But her voice was an important one to add, Lien said, and it was welcomed.

From there, Yvonne joined other activities, such as the fall dance team. She also applied for and was accepted into a junior Rotarian leadership camp. All of these things, she said, forced her to work harder in school to maintain involvement.

“There are people who are like, they are black so who knows if they are going to graduate or be successful in life,” Yvonne said. “I don’t have that state of mind. We are all the same.”

Lien admires Yvonne, she said, who has “persevered with dignity” through her high school years.

“There are roadblocks for certain children that they didn’t put there for themselves,” Lien said, referring to those that are cultural, societal, educational or related to family. “Yvonne has overcome — with some support — she has overcome that.”

Now that she’s earned the right to graduate — something she never doubted, Yvonne said — she advises other students facing challenges to “stick through it.”

“Get involved. Try new things. Be open. I’m not even gonna lie. I miss high school already,” she said.

‘Break tracks’

The key to Rachel McNeil’s success, she says, is being a self-motivator and keeping up with her homework.

 “A lot of kids just push it off,” said the Denfeld senior, who graduates Thursday with 211 other students in the school auditorium. “It keeps your grades up.”

Being steadfast with schoolwork and having a passion for reading helped McNeil, a descendant of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, stay at the top of her class and maintain her 4.0 GPA.

“I have students who feel being asked to read a chapter of “The Great Gatsby” is outrageous,” said Penny Stauduhar,

McNeil’s grammar and composition teacher this year and honors English teacher last year. “McNeil would read the book over the weekend.”

McNeil has plenty of support from her family, and says they are the most important thing in her life. She, too, looks up to her grandmother, Linda LeGarde Grover, who is an author and associate professor in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where McNeil earned several scholarships to attend in the fall.

“Her family came from hard times with so many people to look after,” McNeil said. “She rose above that and is very successful.”

The support of family and the community makes life easier, Grover said. But, even when it’s difficult at home, succeeding isn’t impossible.

“Rachel works hard and has goals,” Grover said. “She is very aware of her younger sister and cousins and is helping to break tracks for them and other children, too.”

‘A very genuine kid’

Math and science are the preferred subjects of East senior McKinley Sconiers-Hasan, who will major in electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on a full scholarship this fall.

“I like working hard,” said the matter-of-fact, 17-year-old daughter of Denfeld Principal Tonya Sconiers and Mohammed Hasan, a UMD electrical engineering professor.

A “mini-me” of her father, she was destined to go into his field, said her mother.

Sconiers-Hasan has maintained perfect grades throughout high school; a bit of trivia that she said she didn’t think was a big deal until it was pointed out to her. She’s aware of the district, state and national achievement gap between black students and white students, but it’s never made her work harder, she said.

“As I have gotten older, I realize it is defying a lot of standards,” she said, referring to her grades. “It’s a really good thing, especially in a town that is so predominantly white.”

Sconiers-Hasan has educated, multicultural parents who have provided many enrichment opportunities and strong family ties, said Sandy Berini, a guidance counselor at East.

“There is a really broad world-view that adds to the strength and foundation she has,” she said. “And she’s a very genuine kid. It makes my heart sing when kids are supported in being who they are.”

There are many ways these students achieve in a world where statistics say those coming from their racial backgrounds will not, Sconiers said.

“It’s their internal drive, motivation and resiliency,” she said, and when kids see success, they need to be encouraged. “You have to celebrate the successes, no matter how big or how small.”