Monday, January 18, 2016

Normandy High's AP English Class Only Needs Another $2,500 to Visit New York City

Posted By on Mon, Jan 18, 2016 at 6:30 AM

click to enlarge Students in Tyler Jones' AP English class, including Precious (far left), Mathew and Aaliyah. The class hopes to visit New York City this spring. - COURTESY OF TYLER JONES
  • Courtesy of Tyler Jones
  • Students in Tyler Jones' AP English class, including Precious (far left), Mathew and Aaliyah. The class hopes to visit New York City this spring.

When she thinks about visiting New York City, 18-year-old Precious Bobo doesn't think about seeing skyscrapers or fancy stores. Instead, she envisions her classmates' excitement. "I want to see their faces when they see it," she says. 

She just might get that chance.

Bobo is a student at Normandy High School, which is perhaps best-known for educating Michael Brown before his death made him a national lightning rod. The north county St. Louis district has struggled, badly — it's the lowest-performing in the state — and its sole high school has been named the most dangerous in Missouri. But to Bobo, it's home. "We are family," she says. Offered the chance to transfer during the district's accreditation crisis, she declined. 

Bobo plans to go to college (she eventually wants to be a veterinarian). But for now, as a senior, she's learning all she can at Normandy.

In Tyler Jones' AP Writing and Composition class, they are reading important books, among them Ta-Nehesi Coates' Between the World and Me, which just won the National Book Award. It made a huge impression, Bobo says —- and also inspired a possible class trip to New York, if they can only raise a little more money. 

As Jones explains it, part of the book deals with a trip to Paris. Inspired, he threw out a question: Where would the students travel if they could go anywhere?

"I was expecting a crazy list of international destinations," Jones says. "But they had many U.S. cities." As Bobo explains, that's partly a matter of life experience: She's barely been outside Missouri, and suspects that's also true for most of her classmates.

As the discussion shifted, Jones mentioned he'd worked in New York City for a time. "The questions just came pouring out," he says.

Jones began plotting to take the students there — just for the weekend, yes, but he could see the itinerary. They'd visit Harlem, Columbia, maybe even the New York Times. And they'd see the tourist sites, too: Ground Zero, Times Square.

His girlfriend, Brittany Kelleher, who is herself a former teacher in the Normandy district, launched a crowd-funding campaign on a site called Crowd Rise. As of press time, the campaign had raised $6,539 of the trip's estimated $9,000 cost. 

For students like Bobo, it could be a game-changer. She acknowledges that "Mr. Jones" has encouraged her to apply to a few schools out of state in addition to the ones in St. Louis, but she's not sure what to think about that. Going to New York City could help her figure out how she feels about moving away.

"It could help me see what it's like to be away from my family," she says. She's dying to see Times Square.

"I want to see if it's really like what I looks like in TV and in the movies," she says.

Jones, left, with a student. - PHOTO COURTESY OF TYLER JONES
  • Photo courtesy of Tyler Jones
  • Jones, left, with a student.

Jones, 30, came to teaching — and St. Louis — by a circuitous route. A native of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, he studied business and worked as a consultant before getting burnt out and longing for something more. Joining Teach for America in 2011, he found himself placed within the St. Louis Public Schools — and promptly out of a job six weeks into the school year, thanks to district cutbacks. He landed at Normandy. "I wound up there and I absolutely loved it," he says.

But when the district lost its accreditation and the state took over, he was again let go — all teachers had to reapply for their jobs. Fortunately, he was rehired — and last year, won an award as the district's "innovative Teacher of the Year."

He admits his three years in the classroom have been an eye-opener.

"My goal was to use teaching to get into education policy," he says, yet "I find I continually have fewer answers than I walked in with."

Of his students, he adds, "They probably teach me more on a daily basis than I teach them. I consider myself lucky to be teaching in the district. It's been a tremendous opportunity."

Jones still remembers his first trip to New York. He was a bit older than his students at Normandy — an undergrad, he had a job interview in Manhattan — but the rush of arriving at Penn Station is still seared in his memory. Traveling, he says, "opens up your universe so much."

Now he's hoping to open the universe for his AP students. It's only one weekend, but it could change their lives.

To contribute to the AP class' trip, see the Crowd Rise campaign page. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com


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