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CMS In Focus: Former Student Gives Back-To-School Lesson

Exzaviar Hoey (left) at the 8th grade social.

School starts Wednesday at most districts in the area. This week on Morning Edition, WFAE goes inside CMS schools and visits with teachers and administrators. There are the continuing budget challenges, of course. Fewer teachers, fewer supplies and, even several fewer administrators. Some schools may close next year. WFAE's Lisa Miller visited Bishop Spaugh Middle School in west Charlotte. She wanted to see how its teachers are dealing with change while preparing for the new year. That preparation included an important reminder of how much teachers can influence students. Bishop Spaugh's new principal, Jan McIver, has pictures of former students all around her office. There's Mohammed, who now plays for the Cleveland Browns. And Pierre, who just started graduate school. "Every single success story obviously just makes you feel good that you had maybe a little bit of something to do with that," McIver says. But what about the students who don't turn out well? McIver can't help but wonder if she has something to do with their failures, especially when she heard what happened to Exzaviar Hoey. McIver had him for language arts her first-year teaching at Northeast Middle. "He was around a great group of kids. He really was," McIver recalls. "I mean, he was in an honors class. He was impressive in the classroom. He was humorous. He was smart. He was witty. I mean all of those things that you see out of a good student." Hoey is now 25. He got out of prison last fall in a case which involved a gang shootout. One young man died. Hoey served four years for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. The original charge was murder. McIver didn't know any of this until a former student told her last year. She got a sick feeling in her stomach. "Here's a kid that I didn't do or someone did not do what needed to be done to get him to Chapel Hill or to be a football player, or to be a nurse or a doctor or whatever it is that he wanted to be when he was younger. . . and so I failed." A few nights ago on a whim, McIver sent Hoey a message via Facebook at 4 a.m. She asked how she and other teachers could have helped lead him down a road "with less hurt and less trouble." The question came as an invitation to speak to her teachers. Hoey accepted. Back to School He arrives on a day when Bishop Spaugh's staff is discussing how to reach African American boys. They talk about low graduation rates and fatherless homes. It's a demographic these teachers are familiar with. McIver leaves the room and strides down the school's breezeway to meet Hoey, her high-heels thudding against the pavement. They hug. Hoey's wearing a polo shirt and jeans. The only remnants of what he calls his backsliding days are the tattoos that cover his hands and forearms. His visit is a surprise to the 20 or so teachers who are about to hear him speak. McIver wasn't sure he'd show up, so she didn't say anything. McIver chokes up a bit. She tells her staff that Hoey has been through a lot, and she wanted him to share his story. "I didn't grow up in a low-income home or the projects or whatever you call it," Hoey tells the teachers. "I grew up in a middle class home in the Hidden Valley community. I had a good family, I just made the wrong decisions." Hoey's family was his grandmother. His mother was murdered when he was six and he never knew his father. His grandmother regularly went to parent-teacher conferences and kept track of him as best she could. Hoey was a 13-year-old 8th-grader when he had McIver as a teacher. He says it was his favorite year in school. "I talk about that year all the time to my colleagues. But I went through a lot of changes." Hoey began smoking pot that year. Then, he moved on to selling drugs. Every so often he was arrested. "Being from where I'm from there's a saying you got to get down or lay down. So I just joined forces with negativity full force, you know what I'm saying, no looking back," he says. Hoey graduated from Independence High in 2003, but was in jail two years later. He got tired of watching life pass him by while he sat in a jail cell. He decided crime wasn't going to get him where he wanted. Hoey got out last November. He's now working at a packing and shipping company while he takes classes at University of Phoenix, writes screenplays and raps. Yes, he's made mistakes, but you get a sense that his past relationship with teachers helped him start turn his life around years later. "You are their life jackets, you know. I had great teachers coming up. I just chose otherwise. I decided to take my life jacket off to get in the pool and drown. . . " The teachers sit still, engrossed in Hoey's story. They want to know what went wrong. Someone points out that Hoey straddled two worlds in 8th grade. "School was great, but you went another way. What is something that the schools could have done?" Hoey struggles to answer the question. There isn't really a clear answer. Instead, he paints a picture of a teenager that seems impossible to reach. "I make good, good grades and I was in advanced classes. I just go home. It was like a computer getting its program deleted," he says. His words are unsettling. McIver gets up and addresses her staff: "What we do in this building is making these kids lives and it could also go the other way. And it's so true, it's so true. We cannot save every single one of them. As you heard, you get in their face. They still take the life jacket off, but he put it back on and he's back in the game now. . ." The teachers are re-energized by Hoey's story. They are also embracing their responsibility.