Two decades ago, a group of Pierce County community leaders was frustrated at what was happening with local African American high school students: low graduation rates, underachievement, too few on the road to college.
“We wanted to emphasize the importance of education,” said Jim Walton, retired Tacoma city manager and a longtime activist in the city’s black community. “We wanted to emphasize going to school, staying in school and doing well in school so that when they finished high school, they would have choices.”
What emerged was the Elizabeth Wesley Youth Merit Incentive Award Program. In 1996, the program recognized five African American kids for their achievements. At its most recent awards ceremony, held in September at Clover Park Technical College, there were 203 Wesley honorees.
The awards are named for the late Elizabeth Wesley, who was deeply involved with youth and families and who helped found Tacoma’s Shiloh Baptist Church, the Tacoma Urban League and the city’s NAACP chapter. There are six founding partner organizations: The Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective, NAACP, Ministerial Alliance, Prince Hall Masons, and Tacoma Urban League and the Urban League Guild.
To qualify as a Wesley scholar, a student must be enrolled in one of the seven participating school districts: Bethel, Clover Park, Franklin Pierce, Puyallup, Steilacoom, Tacoma and University Place. Students must have a grade-point average of at least 2.5. They also complete an essay and must provide evidence of community involvement and good citizenship, including letters of recommendation.
The program differs from many scholarship opportunities, which target only graduating high school seniors. Wesley scholars are eligible at the end of each of their first three years of high school, grades nine through 11, and receive their award the following fall.
The goal is to reach out to African American kids early in their high school career, and to sustain that outreach. Many Wesley scholars earn the award in each of three years.
CeDrice Howard, a Curtis High School and Running Start student at Tacoma Community College, is a three-time Wesley award winner.
She has a long list of accolades. At age 16, she is a high school senior (she skipped a grade early in her school career) who is on track to earn both her high school diploma and her associate’s degree this spring. She’s lettered in basketball and track and field, has volunteered hundreds of hours with University Place Parks and Recreation and has her eye on a career as a physician’s assistant. She hopes to learn Spanish and work abroad.
But she doesn’t consider herself an over-achiever.
“School comes naturally to me,” Howard said. “I know how hard my parents worked to get where they are, and I want to give my (future) children the same thing.”
The daughter of an educator and an engineer, Howard said the power of education is one of the values she grew up with and she tries to surround herself with friends who have the same goals.
For her, a Wesley award winner is “someone who represents the African American community in a positive way instead of in a negative light.”
Wesley honoree Keanu Maples, now a junior at Rogers High School in Puyallup, says he didn’t realize that ninth grade counts toward a student’s high school grade point average even when it is part of a junior high, as in Puyallup.
Failure to do well in ninth grade “is going to crush your grade-point average,” he said. He acknowledges that his would be higher, if not for his ninth grade floundering.
One thing that motivated him, he said, was joining Army ROTC in high school.
“My mom always said that in order to be successful, you have to surround yourself with successful people,” Maples said. When he got to high school, he decided that those people were in ROTC. So he joined in 10th grade.
“I was forced to be a leader,” Maples said. “I was forced to grow up. When I got into ROTC, I realized that I can’t goof off any more.”
As a school ROTC company commander, he’s not just in charge of his own destiny, but he also is responsible for the students he leads.
Now, he’s looking forward to college and then, joining the Army’s Special Forces.
He views the Wesley award as recognition for his hard work in bringing up his grades and a sign that “I need to keep going.”
Each award comes with $350, in a check made out to the student. The idea is to give the student responsibility for spending the money. Many use it to cover the cost of college applications, textbooks and other fees that traditional scholarships don’t cover. It’s also a lesson in financial literacy for many students, who open their first checking account with the award money.
Reggie Johnson, who works on selecting students for the award, said the dollar amount isn’t meant to be a “game changer” in relation to college expenses. “It’s just the pride that the award brings,” he said. “Parents say it helps students gain more confidence. Parents and friends talk about who got the award.”
An estimated 65 percent of the money raised for the program comes from individual donors. It’s a mostly volunteer effort, with the exception of one part-time paid administrator.
“The community has literally taken ownership of the program,” program co-chairman Wayne Williams said.
Supporters of the Wesley awards say their satisfaction comes from supporting young people while in high school and watching them grow into successful adults.
Jamilia Sherls is a 2001 Wilson High School graduate and triple Wesley award winner.
She is currently pursuing a doctorate in nursing and holds what she describes as her dream job as manager of the community outreach program at MultiCare Health System, where she is involved in public health issues. She said the Wesley award during her high school years was a huge incentive to study hard.
It showed her that “the community was behind me. I felt people believed in me.”
Sherls was one of the speakers at this year’s Wesley awards ceremony. In her speech, she talked about the role that the Wesley award played in her academic life, and about the meaning of the award for African American youths.
“We need persistence in reaching our goals,” she said. “We shouldn’t let obstacles in life stand in our way.”
To learn more
Information on the Elizabeth Wesley Youth Merit Incentive Award Program, how to apply for an award, and how to donate and support the program is at ewesleyaward.org.