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Distinguished Young Alumni:  Adams, Norton building bright futures

On a hot September day, a parent walks through the doors of a small classroom, wanting to know “what’s up” with her daughter.

“Well, I haven’t had her in class lately because she’s been in Peace,” Wil Norton (11) said.

Peace is the in-school suspension program at Douglass Mid-High School, something that doesn’t jive with the “Community of Achievement” theme in Wil’s seventh-grade English class.

“It’s our goal always to be thinking about how to treat each other, how to see ourselves as part of a greater community – Oklahoma City – and how we work together in our own classroom to achieve the goals that we want to accomplish,” Wil said.

It’s a different chapter of the same story just down the hall in Henson Adams’ Algebra I class.

Henson, another 2011 OC alumnus, sits at a graffiti-covered desk in a room with broken window panes, discussing a student’s work with a parent.

That parent is lucky her child has a teacher with a full year’s experience teaching Algebra I.

“The classroom that I took over had gone through five teachers in one year, so it was pretty rough,” Henson said.

In-school suspension, broken window panes and damaged desks only tell part of the story at Douglass. For these 2012 Distinguished Young Alumni, the greater focus is on inspiring success through the prestigious Teach for America program.

After surviving a grueling interview process and five-week training program in Phoenix, the former Student Government Association presidents began their two-year contracts at Douglass, a mere 15 miles from their alma mater.

“In Teach for America, we internalize that all schools, all students, no matter where they are, what school it is, can achieve huge amounts of success – and I really believe that,” Wil said.

The neighborhood is tough and so are the students. They don’t have much choice. After all, 99 percent of students live in poverty and most face other personal struggles on top of that.

“When you are dealing with seriously wounded children, it takes about a semester to gain their trust before you can make any progress with them academically,” Henson said. “Once you do, it’s great. They are all capable of doing it; it just takes work.”

The words “Welcome to the Harlem Renaissance,” greet every person that walks through Wil’s door. It’s a nod to the life-changing nature of the literature he teaches, a niche he found at Oklahoma Christian.

“I developed a passion for literature at OC that I didn’t have before, and that’s something that students pick up on everyday,” Wil said. “Dr. Scott LaMascus (84), Dr. Bailey McBride and Dr. Cami Agan (91) really instilled an excitement in me for literature – how it can change someone’s philosophy about the world and show us our purpose in the world.”

Teach for America also helps Wil live out convictions nurtured in a Minor Prophets class taught by former OC professor Harold Shank (72), now the president at Ohio Valley University.

“In Micah, Amos and Hosea, they talk about how we should live out our lives in righteousness and justice,” Wil said. “I felt like Teach for America really brought along this idea of justice and righteousness in trying to bring about equitable education for all kids.”

Henson’s experiences have given him a deep appreciation for the life of the Apostle Paul.

“I took a class about Paul, and now I understand what it means to really be persecuted for doing the right thing – and how it’s not fun and it doesn’t feel glorious,” he said. “But because I’m a Christian, I’m just going to give God the glory for that and just keep trying.”

So far, his perseverance has paid off in huge gains by his students. In one of his classes, 70 percent of the students grew three or more years in math and passed the Algebra “End-of-Instruction” test.

“I can’t thank OC enough for the time I got to spend in leadership roles,” Henson said. “The tenacity and perseverance that I gained from doing those things, and always being encouraged to do my best, definitely translated over.”

Neither Henson nor Wil planned to teach right after graduation. Wil was headed to graduate school to study English and Henson had his heart set on law school.

“I wish that more people would consider it,” Wil said. “It’s such an important issue and it seems like a shame to not consider what you can do to contribute helping underserved kids.”

Wil sees himself teaching for a while before going to graduate school. Henson plans to go to law school after completing his two-year contract. In the meantime, both work to break through stereotypes to build bright futures.

“I can never be a mirror in the sense that I can’t be a young black guy that’s come from their shoes and been successful,” Henson said. “What I try to be is a window for them to see opportunity and see a part of the world that they haven’t seen before.”

By Jana Miller (09)