Believing in ‘Magic’

Apr. 10, 2014 @ 07:32 PM

Earvin “Magic” Johnson was a Hall of Fame basketball player whose prowess at Michigan State University and with the Los Angeles Lakers made him one of the most revered – and well-paid – athletes of his generation.

Johnson – who valued education to come back to Michigan State in the summers after he turned pro, so he could finish his degree – has invested substantially in efforts to help disconnected youth get back on track in school. The Bridgescape Academies that he has backed are in 17 school districts across the country – including Durham Public Schools.

And Johnson brought his charisma and his own up-from-the-’hood story to the Durham site this week. He believes his personal commitment, his willingness to travel from school to school to be a palpable role model, helps ensure the program’s success.

“It’s something that we feel that’s incredibly important, that he has a physical presence at the schools,”  Michael Serpe, director of communications for EdisonLearning, told The Herald-Sun’s Greg Childress before Johnson’s visit. EdisonLearning is a partner with Magic Johnson Enterprises in the academies.

Johnson “wants to see these kids’ faces and instill his passion for education and tell them that he’s behind them,” Serpe said.

Johnson’s message was uplifting for the students at Durham’s Bridgescape Academy, which opened in 2012 in the Holton Career and Resource Center.

“When you look at yourself in the mirror, I want you to see me, too,” Johnson said. “Same problems. Same issues. But the difference is I believe in myself, and I took advantage of my opportunity, and that’s what you’ve got here.”

Johnson drove home his “been there” theme. “Everybody forgets I’m from the ’hood,” he said. “I grew up like this.”

It’s hard to overstate the benefit of Johnson’s testimony. He has a far better chance of reaching young men and women than many adults would have – although we should note that many DPS administrators work tirelessly to drive home those truths every single day.

The Bridgescape Academy is a key part of DPS’s full-court press to keep more students in school and walking across the stage on graduation day.  Evidence is that it is meeting with success – Durham schools reported an 80 percent graduation rate last year, up 10 percentage points in the past seven years.

But that rate still means one out of every five students who should graduate is heading into adulthood without even a high school diploma, all but guaranteeing a life of at best low-paying jobs. The best schools in the state – including those in nearby Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools -- have graduation rates comfortably north of 90 percent.

Once a young man or woman has dropped out of school, getting him or her back is a challenge.

“The decision to return to school is not always easy, and it’s not always simple for our kids,” Kesha Futrell, Bridgescape program director, said this week.

But with the efforts of Futrell’s colleagues, and encouragement like that from Johnson, the odds of success are higher.