Star pupil emerges from troubled district

Billy Davis, Paulsboro High valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar, enjoying the traditional Senior breakfast at school.
Billy Davis, Paulsboro High valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar, enjoying the traditional Senior breakfast at school. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 13, 2012

At the tender age of 2, Billy Davis was earnestly trying to read and spell. By 4, he could rattle all the driver's names and car numbers at NASCAR races he attended with his father. By kindergarten, he was - politely - correcting his teacher.

"It didn't take us too long to realize there was something special about this kid," said Kevin Davis, his cop-turned-minister father.

The teachers and staff at Paulsboro High School recognized his ability just as quickly. In this academically and economically challenged school district, they couldn't be prouder - and not just about his smarts.

On Friday, Billy, 17, will give the valedictory address at Paulsboro High. As far as Paulsboro schools officials can determine, he is the district's first-ever National Merit Scholar. Between that $2,500 scholarship and more than $50,000-a-year he will receive from Washington and Lee University in Virginia, Billy's college costs will be covered.

Far from crowing about his accomplishments, the young man, adopted from South Korea at 5 months, prefers crediting teachers who inspired him, opportunities created for him and friends made since coming to the district just shy of his 13th birthday.

"They talk about Paulsboro pride," he said. "There really is."

Billy Davis' secondary education is, according to all involved, the story of a struggling district with caring staff who strove to do right by one particularly gifted student who, in turn, did not let them down.

"Paulsboro has been wonderful," said Susan Davis, Billy's mother and a secretary at another Gloucester County school district. "They did everything that was in their power to do for him."

At a time when so much of education is judged by statistics, the 1,300-student district is not an obvious object of praise.

Based on a new methodology of calculating annual graduation rates, New Jersey recently tabulated Paulsboro's as only 62 percent. Because of that low rate, the high school is one on a list of 183 so-called Focus Schools earmarked for state intervention.

While efforts to help struggling students appear to be improving some test scores, district officials agree they are not where they want them to be. On last year's state high school language arts exam, more than 18 percent of students didn't pass, and nearly 45 percent failed the math test.

At Paulsboro High, advanced placement participation for 11th and 12th grades was less than 12 percent last year, compared with the state average of nearly 40 percent. Twenty-four percent of Paulsboro's seventh through 12th graders qualify for special education.

Behind those numbers is a Paulsboro far different from the booming industrial and refinery town of the early 20th century. Over the decades, those jobs dwindled, and the borough's population has been declining since the 1960s.

Paulsboro retains its blue-collar soul, but, according to the state Education Department, it is one of the poorest districts in New Jersey. It has been placed on par with Camden but has historically not gotten the same level of state aid.

Compounding the educational challenges is a high rate of students who come and go during a school year: 23 percent vs. the state average of 10 percent. According to district figures, more than 40 percent of its students live in rented homes, and 67 percent qualify for free or reduced fee lunch. This school year, the number of homeless students doubled to 30 from 15 the year before, according to district officials.

Social and economic factors can have a bearing on student achievement, Billy said, but whether it's test scores or community character, numbers alone don't tell everything.

"If you just look at statistics," he said, "you miss things."

Paulsboro wrestling - the stuff of legends - plays to packed houses, and basketball and football have strong followings, too. And in a state where frustrated taxpayers have been known to vote against school budgets just because they can, Paulsboro superintendent Frank Scambia can't recall a year the district's budget failed.

"There's a pride in the school system," Scambia said.

That includes some very committed teachers - some who have stuck with Paulsboro for many years.

"It's almost like a mission," said Lori DelRossi, high school librarian and Billy's Advanced Placement English teacher. "You're here and you're bound and determined some of these kids are going to get out and go to college."

The difference between the ones who succeed and those who don't, she said, is often some adult pushing them to go further.

Billy's success never was in doubt, DelRossi said. "Nobody has ever been like Billy."

The Davises' first child, Billy was starting to memorize NASCAR drivers when his father, then a detective with the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office, began the transition to becoming a Methodist minister. Kevin and Susan Davis now have two biological sons and an adopted daughter, as well.

Kevin was assigned to a congregation in Bridgeton and moved his family there when Billy was going into first grade. A poor, urban district, once singled out like Camden for special assistance by the state Supreme Court, Bridgeton has had problems with student achievement.

Bridgeton was frustrating for Susan Davis. "It's very difficult when you have a child that is above the norm, and you're trying to get services for him," she said.

Kevin Davis was transferred to St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Paulsboro when Billy was in the middle of seventh grade.

"You get people who come in and say, 'My kid is great.' But then it comes down to 'Show me the money,' " said Dave Platt, Billy's cross-country coach and a former guidance counselor. Billy "was the real deal."

Paulsboro responded by placing Billy in the eighth grade, instead of seventh. He tested out of algebra, so Paulsboro enrolled him in high school geometry.

Later, when he exhausted the advanced placement courses at high school, the district paid for him to take more online. Last fall, he took physics at Gloucester County College.

But all along, there was more to Billy than academics.

"Besides the fact he is brilliant, he is kind; he is funny," DelRossi said.

She remembered a time he offered to help two seventh graders struggling with a project. "He made them laugh," she said. "He didn't make them feel stupid."

Billy played percussion and jazz piano in band and ran cross-country, where he wasn't a superstar but a good and generous leader, Platt said.

Billy probably would have succeeded at any school, but he credits Paulsboro for helping him become who he is.

"We don't have enough people to fill out all the different cliques" at bigger schools, said Billy, one of 75 graduates this year. "You don't have any one-dimensional kids in Paulsboro."

Not everyone got his grades, but then again, he said, some band members were better musicians than he was.

"I think going to Paulsboro allowed me to be more of kid," Billy said. "If I had gone to a school like Haddonfield, I would have been a whole lot more up on the wheel, a lot more tense."

Living in Paulsboro also has let him see what life is like for people who struggle, he said. "There was all sorts of things you gain at a school like Paulsboro."

He looks forward to going away to college, where he may major in finance or do premed; he hasn't decided.

There are things he will miss, starting with his mom's cooking. But he has done the math: the Washington and Lee campus is a 51/2-hour drive away. "I can get home on a tank of gas."

He will miss Paulsboro High, too. "With all its occasional faults and failures," he said, "it still feels like home."


Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841, rgiordano@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @ritagiordano.

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