Friday, Sept. 23, 2011 | 2 a.m.
It was a quiet moment between mother and son at a high school football game, Toure Williams and Angela Choice in a strong embrace.
The 17-year-old wide receiver for Chaparral High School wore an inflatable brace on his left knee to stabilize an injured joint. A sideline physician, an orthopedist Toure had never met before the game, wanted the young athlete to sit out the rest of the game, Chaparral’s second of the season.
Toure wasn’t sure what to make of the advice, so he gingerly walked to the bleachers, where his mother met him on the bottom step.
“Mom, I haven’t played two full games yet. I haven’t played a full game. I have no offensive stats,” he said in a soft voice.
Angela thought for a moment. “Be patient,” she said gently, tears filling her eyes. “We’re going to get there one way or another. We’re going to go there, but there’s no coming back tonight. Why would you hurt yourself? Listen to the doctors. Sit on the sidelines. Think about the future.”
Toure (pronounced Tor-AY) is one of the stars of the team, which had won just two games in two-plus seasons. He is banking on a top-flight performance during his senior year to land a college scholarship. He speaks of becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.
At 6 feet 2 inches and 180 pounds, he dreams of becoming an NFL wide receiver and eventually a sportscaster.
But he has a pragmatic side, too. He knows the odds of making the pros aren’t good; so Toure, with a 3.0 grade-point average, also dreams of one day being a police officer, a forensics technician, possibly a lawyer.
“I just want to do right, to be somebody in life,” he says. “I want to have the situation in my hands so I can decide what happens, just like football.”
Football is a game for Toure, but he also views it as an opportunity to move his family out of their working-class neighborhood along Nellis Boulevard, a story that is all too familiar to sports fans and moviegoers but is real and poignant nonetheless.
His mother earns about $34,000 a year working for the Nevada Division of Welfare. His father lives out of state and rarely pays child support, he says. The two live with Angela’s 70-year-old mother, who receives monthly Social Security benefits.
Angela was out of work for more than a year before finding her state job, and she took out high-interest, payday loans to pay for food and rent. The family is on a financial treadmill. So Toure’s goal is clear: “College means everything to me,” he says.
Chaparral High School has one of the lowest graduation rates among the Clark County School District’s 48 high schools. Its reputation has sunk in recent years with the influx of working-class students from transient families. Nearly half of the students who began the school year at Chaparral will move before it ends, creating an unstable learning environment. A significant percentage of those families are running from bill collectors, according to school administrators and attendance officers.
A large share of Chaparral students are raised by parents and grandparents who didn’t earn college degrees and therefore lack an understanding of what it takes to apply to college, let alone be accepted by one. There is little grasp of the grades that are needed for acceptance or what is required to receive financial aid.
“I know I had some help at home. My parents didn’t go to college, but they were willing to help,” said Chaparral Assistant Principal Ron Guerzon, the Hawaiian-raised son of Filipino émigrés. “But a lot of kids don’t have help outside of school.”
As of October 2010, 68.1 percent of recent high school graduates nationwide were enrolled in colleges or universities, according to a survey of 60,000 households by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The enrollment rate was 84 percent for Asian-Americans, 68.6 percent for whites, 61.4 percent for blacks and 59.6 percent for Hispanics.
The numbers may sound relatively healthy, but they do not account for dropout rates for black and Hispanic teens, particularly minority males. Slightly more than two of every 10 black and Hispanic males graduated this past year at Chaparral, according to figures compiled by the school’s new administrative staff. If the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers are accurate, nine of 10 black and Hispanic males who enrolled at Chaparral and other similarly challenged schools five years ago are not in college today. In fact, just one of 10 Nevada high school freshmen will ever earn a bachelor’s degree, or about half of the national average.
In Nevada, the belief that a successful work life didn’t require a college diploma has long held sway.
A new district initiative has staff at the district’s high schools aggressively working to identify the needs of individual students, whether it be to help them fill out college applications or to simply graduate. A key goal is to help students, particularly minority students, overcome misconceptions about the college application process.
Yet, school counselors are often overwhelmed tracking as many as 400 students, a large portion of whom are at risk, barely staying in school. As a result, district officials are considering the creation of a new position to usher teens through the process.
“It’s just so different than the high school I attended,” Guerzon remembered of his experience from the early 1990s. “When I went to high school, the attitude was everyone was going to go to college, and the competition was to see who went to USC, Colorado State and Hawaii. Here we feel like we need to provide our kids with everything because we don’t know what they’re getting at home.”
Chaparral’s new football coach, Bill Froman, knows what the students face. He grew up in economically troubled Toledo, Ohio, the son of divorced parents — his father a periodically unemployed contractor, his mother a teacher. Froman largely fended for himself.
“I kind of grew up on my own on the streets. That’s the truth,” he remembers. “I just tell the kids that I was a poor kid, and the first one in my crew to go to college. I tell them, ‘So and so’s in college right now. He’s not smarter than you.’ Besides, if I could do it, they can do it.”
Froman, 41, has a master’s degree in education and is pursuing another in theology after having completed a stint in the Navy.
He inherited Toure when he took over the team, and he found a good athlete he believes is better suited to defense than offense and would make a fine small-college player.
“I tell these kids there’s no shame in starting at a junior college, a community college and transferring to another school, no matter the size,” he says. “They don’t understand. This is new to them.”
Toure’s grandmother says the teen has never given her or his mother a day of trouble. He’s always been the sort of kid who knew when to walk away from an incident on the brink.
“I know that we can’t afford to send him to college. The best we can probably do is put him in a JC,” says his grandma, Angie Chapple. “I would just like to see him become the first one of my kids and grandkids to graduate from college. Being a black man, that’s the only way he can have a good future, by going to college.”
Toure is philosophical when discussing his future. He’s heard the numbers: A college degree could mean an additional $1 million in lifetime earnings. The unemployment rate for college graduates is about 4 percent; for high school graduates without a college diploma it’s about 14 percent. His grade-point average is not quite good enough to qualify him for the Millennium Scholarship, which would pay for his education at UNLV or UNR.
“I know I’m not the only person struggling to get to college, but I’m fighting, and I’ve made myself a promise that I’ll get there someday no matter what it takes,” he says. “We’re going to get through it, and that’s what we’re doing. I’m going to get past high school, go to college and be something.
“We’re going to have problems. That’s what life is, and this is all teaching me to be better. I want to support my mom, grandma. I’ve got to fight through it and keep running. Mom, grandma, God, they all have faith in me. A lot of people have my back, and they want me to succeed in life.”