“You can do anything you put your mind to. You can be anything; you can be anybody,” Hopson told the class’s 80 members in a celebration rally in the gym, reminding them that only a year ago, Carver had been scheduled to close.
“Y’all had a community that said, ‘No, we are willing to step up,’” Hopson told them.
“I am so proud of each and every one of y’all.”
As of Wednesday, 4,400 seniors in Shelby County had signed up for Tennessee Promise, the scholarship funded by a state lottery endowment that is available for the first time to the class of 2015. It will kick in after Pell Grants, state lottery scholarships and financial aid are exhausted, allowing students to attend two years at a community college or two-year technical school in the state without charge.
As a young man, Hopson could have benefited from the scholarship when he was a full-time student at Shelby State Community College, a story most people don’t know.
When it took him longer to finish his bachelor’s degree at the University of Memphis than he planned, he got back on track by studying nights and summers at Shelby State.
“Even back then, those teachers were so focused on making sure we used that educational opportunity to better ourselves,” Hopson said.
When you are from a poor part of town, “people give up on you real quick,” said Hopson, a graduate of Whitehaven High.
“They think you aren’t anything but a statistic. And they look at you like you are up to no good,” he said, reminding them, that “a kid like me, who was just like you, is superintendent of Shelby County Schools.”
For students like Jamika Gross, 18, the scholarship has changed not only what the future looks like but how she feels about today, she said.
“I think folks were losing hope that they could go to college,” she said. “I want to be a nurse. I have made a decision that I am going to have a good attitude and listen in class.
“I’m paying attention. I’m helping others when they need help and I’m asking questions.”
Other students said they had noticed similar changes in their classmates, including that students are trying harder than they had even last year because they see they have a real chance of going to college.
“You see the joy and excitement in this,” said Alexandria Worthy, who teaches Spanish at Carver. “And it’s a beautiful thing.”
This is the third year a last-dollar scholarship has been available in Shelby County. In previous years, it was funded by private donors through tnAchieves. The county’s sign-up rate this year is nearly identical to last year’s.
“Instead of rare, it has become very much normal to have 100 percent participation,” said Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director of tnAchieves.
Her organization handles registration and finding a mentor for each student. “We had 502 mentors this morning in Shelby County. It’s great when you have 500 people willing to work with students and give them their time, but we do need 880 mentors.
People interested in mentoring can sign up at tnAchieves. “The big challenge in Shelby County is making sure everyone understands this is a one-hour per month commitment. It’s really helping students navigate the post secondary process. It’s not an exorbitant amount of time. It’s quite doable.”