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Meet The Class Of '17: He Shoots, He Scores

The statistics are shocking: One of every four kids in an American high school drops out. That’s why KERA has joined a national public broadcasting initiative, called American Graduate, to explore the dropout crisis. Today, we’re starting a new series called Class of ’17 that will follow a handful of North Texas eighth graders from across the economic and ethnic spectrum all the way to high school graduation. First up: a 13-year-old dealing with his parents' divorce and a learning disability -- on the basketball court.

Sunday night’s practice for the traveling team called the North Texas Heat is almost over.  Jerry Harris, who’s a student at Coppell Middle School East, may be more committed to this sport than anything he’s ever done.

“It pretty much means everything," he says. "Like if I go three days without playing I’ll get the jitters, I’ll start bouncing a ball inside the house. I’ll get in trouble because I’m bouncing the ball so much because my mom thinks it’s annoying to hear the pounding of the ball all day, every day.”

Still, that’s OK with mom. Susan Evans, who works with special-needs children in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district, says basketball keeps Jerry busy and he loves it. Plus, this Christian ball club “stresses the importance of faith, doing well in school, behaving well, setting goals for yourself, being an all-around good citizen, son, player, everything.”

Evans shares custody of Jerry with her ex, a paramedic who lives nearby. And what got the boy through the divorce? You guessed it: basketball.

“It’s kind of my way out. I know when my parents divorced, I used basketball kind of as a way out, because not only could I dribble the ball to get some anger out, I could shoot, and when I made a shot, like if it was a swish, that just made me feel a whole lot better about our situation. Even nowadays, I’m over the divorce, but still when you hear that swish and the ball, it makes you feel good.”

What makes his mom feel good is not only how Jerry performs on the court, but how he performs in the classroom. Early on, she planted the idea that college was pretty much expected, just as it was for her. 

“Both my parents are college graduates," she says. "And it wasn’t an option not to go to college. So, we had to do well in school, and we had to go to college.”

Jerry got the message. In sixth grade, he started a college portfolio to find good academic and basketball schools with scholarship potential.

“Children have to know ‘My parents expect for me to go to college,’ ” says Sherril English, an education professor at Southern Methodist University.

She’s also been a teacher and administrator at a Dallas private school that targets minority and at-risk students. And she says what sets many achieving kids apart is that push, whether from a parent, another relative or even a friend in the community or from church.  

“Which means ‘I have to do well in school. So I’m going to school every day, I’m studying, I’m doing my homework. My parents are supporting me in this process.’ ”

Sure, Jerry’s a mostly “A” student in a top school in a strong district. But his success hasn’t been automatic, or easy. A few years back, his mom, the special education expert, noticed he was having problems with his writing. So she had him tested. Now, thanks to her involvement, he gets help with a learning disability called dysgraphia.

“My handwriting’s always been bad and sloppy and all over the page," Jerry says. "Let’s say I’m writing a story. I’ll skip a whole paragraph I meant to put in there and knew that I was supposed to put in there. It’s just my brain will clear it out and my brain will keep moving on, without even realizing it. It’s like a short circuit from my brain to my hand.”

Jerry is doing well so far, in class and on the court. But he’s learning that to keep up the pace of improvement, it takes a lot of time managing the basics. That means writing a paragraph, then proofreading and rewriting it – then doing it again – to make sure all his thoughts are there. It’s not all that different from delivering the perfect pass or taking the best shot.

Next week, we’ll meet another member of KERA’s Class of  '17 – a teammate of Jerry’s named Riki Rijos, Jr., whose dad dropped out of college but built a career and legacy for his eighth-grade son.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.