Determined to excel despite family and city legacies

Lorenz Bethea, valedictorian at Camden's Woodrow Wilson High, on graduation day with her mother, Naomee. Mother and daughter were determined that Lorenz would make something of herself. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Lorenz Bethea, valedictorian at Camden's Woodrow Wilson High, on graduation day with her mother, Naomee. Mother and daughter were determined that Lorenz would make something of herself. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 07, 2014

The graffiti gang tag on the train embankment that runs along the perimeter of the Baldwin's Run neighborhood reads "Bloods West Side." It is both an ominous reminder of the city's ills and a visual backdrop as Lorenz Bethea leaves her house in East Camden at 7:45 a.m. and heads to school.

A loose dog darts across the street and a woman warns Lorenz to be careful - in case it bites. As Camden goes, this is a relatively safe neighborhood. Even so, when the teenager turns on her cellphone and tunes in a gospel station on Pandora, only one earbud is in place.

"You always have to have your guard up," she says. "This is Camden."

In this city, where 53 percent of students graduate from high school and many wind up with a criminal record before a diploma, Lorenz, 18, graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School at the top of her class and will go on to a four-year college.

Her brother, Takiese Bethea, one year older, took the same walk to school but ended up in the Camden County Jail. He has been in and out of prison since age 15 and is currently held on assault charges.

"We grew up in the same household, so it wasn't like he was exposed to things I wasn't exposed to," Lorenz said. "It means he chose to do that stuff."

The family's recent history is marred by killings and prison sentences, a pattern evident in the lives of many of Lorenz's classmates. She, however, decided years ago that she wanted to escape that legacy and this city - at least for college.

"I just felt like Camden was a vacuum that was sucking everybody around me up. And I knew I had enough strength not to be sucked up. But it was taking a toll on me because my brother was my best friend, and when I saw him going downhill it was just like, I don't want to run from him but I want to be able to better myself."

As she approaches the high school, Lorenz stops at a corner store to buy a bottle of water and a pack of gum. About two dozen students loiter outside.

"They'll be out here until second period or later," she says, shaking her head and smiling.  

Challenges

"Success is the Only Option," reads the marquee that greets students at Woodrow Wilson High School.

High achievement in Camden, where rates for unemployment, poverty, and crime are among the highest in the country, is different from what it is in other places. The landscape itself is an impediment to be overcome.

Lorenz walks through a metal detector and puts her bag into an X-ray machine. The saccharine smell of syrup and waffles hangs in the air of the cafeteria where breakfast is being served. About 95 percent of students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

She weaves through the hallways, greets friends, and walks into AP biology, where the back half of the room has become a graveyard of abandoned microscopes, beakers, and tubes.

In the front of the room, Arnold Purdon, a veteran teacher at Wilson, uses a new smartboard to teach a lesson on global warming. There's a lot to cover before the AP exam in May.

But first period is restless.

It's not long before one hushed side conversation becomes three noisy ones and Purdon starts to lose control. "Ladies, can we please listen?" he asks politely. Of the eight students in the class, three wear headphones as he lectures.

At Wilson, only half of all students graduate in four years, according to data from 2012-13. Eighty-five percent of students are economically disadvantaged, 30 percent are classified as special needs, and 21 percent have limited English proficiency.

When Lorenz started her freshman year there were 279 students in her class. The beginning of her senior year the class had 199 students. Many dropped out.

Lorenz is valedictorian of her class. She averaged a 3.8 GPA her senior year. But she scored a 910 on the combined reading and math portions of the SAT and she failed the math section of the state High School Statewide Assessments exam, required for graduation, the first time she took it her junior year. Of her Wilson peers, only 14 percent of first-time HSPA test takers in 2012-13 passed the math test and 36 percent passed in language arts.

Teachers here care about their students - they take up collections to send homeless students to prom, stay after school to provide extra help, knock on drug houses looking for vanished freshmen. But Camden administrators say the woeful state of academics sends even the highest-performing students to college underprepared.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, who took over the district in August at the behest of the state after 23 of 26 schools failed to meet state benchmarks, called it "a dramatic lack of rigor."

"This isn't just a Camden problem. It's a national problem," he said specifically of students in low-income districts. "If you look at the national four-year college completion rate it's 29 percent. It's stunningly low."

Rouhanifard said the district was looking to get more students enrolled in a Gateway Program for those who have dropped out, and promote college access centers at the schools. He is also seeking to leverage federal funding for additional SAT and ACT tutoring, which exists in a limited capacity, next year.

When Lorenz was a sophomore, she and her mother grew so frustrated with Wilson's academics that she moved to Maryland to live with an aunt and attend a high-achieving public school.

"It felt like a college," Lorenz said. "They were very organized. It seemed like more of a community effort vs. a struggle. At my school, it's a struggle. Everybody is fighting to get the kids to settle down and get some knowledge into them."

Despite having a near-perfect GPA in Camden, Lorenz barely got by in Maryland. She and her aunt, a Rutgers graduate, stayed up late into the night on the living-room floor trying to understand assignments. She called home in tears because she missed her mother, her grandmother, and her friends.

"I realized I was on a whole different level," Lorenz said. "I used to beat myself up for it."

Then she asked herself: "Why work so hard if she could just go back to Camden and get all A's?"

Less than a month after arriving, she moved home.

"We see it again and again, and it's through no fault of their own," said Nyeema Watson, director of Public School Partnerships at Rutgers-Camden, which works with area high schools on college preparation. "They go to class every day, they're getting all A's, they're leaders. These are outgoing kids. They've done their part. But if the schools, across the board, don't provide a more rigorous education, we're going to see this same challenge persist for them when they leave."

In a recent study done by Camden County College, less than 10 percent of 400 Camden high school juniors and seniors tested scored high enough to handle college courses without remedial help.

But college-ready has different definitions and can't necessarily be pegged to a score on a test, say educators who point to the insurmountable challenges students in Camden face.

"What is college-ready?" Woodrow Wilson guidance counselor Yvette Pruitt asked. "College-ready is, 'Are you going to be successful?'

"The SATs - that's a business. But our business is to get the kids ready for their future, not a number on the paper. We know who they are, what they need, and what we need to do to help them."

A Cycle

By the time she was five months pregnant, the steps outside Camden High were too tiring for Naomee Bethea to climb for school each day. The then-16-year-old dropped out, just as her mother had done two decades before. Naomee had her son, Takiese in 1995, and one year later gave birth to a daughter.

"When I had Lorenz I said, 'Not again. This cycle ends here,' " said Naomee, now 35.

As her two children grew, Naomee insisted on eating family dinners together and going to church. She constantly asked them about school. Takiese had perfect attendance in the first grade - she still has the pin to prove it - and good grades through middle school. Lorenz, who lived with her grandmother until age 11, was also excelling.

Then, when Takiese was in seventh grade, Naomee received a call from East Camden Middle School. Her son had come in with a red bandanna hanging out of his pocket. A counselor told her it was a gang symbol.

"You know how mothers are, 'Oh, no way, not my child'? He was just like Lorenz. Loved school. It didn't make sense," she said.

But then a few years later he came home with a star tattoo, a known Bloods gang symbol, and she started to worry.

Naomee enrolled him in a private school, but he was expelled. She and her fiance, Troy Taylor, showed him video testimonials of men in prison. When he stopped coming home they drove up and down the known drug-market corridors, searching.

"I tried my hardest to reel him back," Naomee said. "I don't want to say he was already lost to the streets. But he was in so deep."

Family history hasn't helped. Naomee is one of 10, and many of her brothers are in and out of jail. "He doesn't have many male role models," she said.

Takiese never met his father. Jerome Greene was killed in June 1994, while Naomee was pregnant with Takiese.

Lorenz's father, Lorenzo Drayton, was murdered four years later in September 1998, when Lorenz was 2.

So when Takiese told his mother he was smarter than his dad - that he would never leave a debt unpaid and that he knew how to stay out of trouble, Naomee knew better.

In April, Takiese, still on probation for a drug-related incident, was arrested on aggravated-assault charges, accused of hitting a woman and breaking her jaw. More charges followed after police say the 19-year-old got into a prison fight. Takiese, who received his high school diploma last year, declined to be interviewed for this story.

"I would rather not have my son in the system," Naomee said, "because it's not rehabilitating, but at the same time, he won't be gunned down in the streets."

Lorenz counts her brother among a growing group of young men "lost to the streets." She names four classmates who became a name, an age, and a date of death.

"The thing is, none of them were bad kids. They were like wholesome, had manners, but wanted to be tough," Lorenz said. "It just seems like a lack of education. They don't see themselves being in corporate America. They want to start business from drug money. That's what they know."

The economics of Camden don't help. Upwards of 20 percent of residents are unemployed and there are few job opportunities for young adults.

"The jobs are in Cherry Hill, Pennsauken," said Joseph Fisher, a health and physical-education teacher at Woodrow Wilson. "I have students who have to work two hours just to pay for the bus or taxi fare it costs them to get to work."  

Faithful

In a low-lit Cherry Hill auditorium, a choir sways, singing the refrain "Our God is a great God," growing louder and elevating the audience to its feet.

Lorenz stands beside Najeerah Chandler, her best friend since fourth grade, smiling and singing along. The girls are regulars at Word on the Street, an evening Bible study program led by Grammy-winning gospel singer and Camden native Tye Tribbett, a lively performer who reads verses with a preacher's intensity and then interprets them as if channeling Chris Rock.

Finding focus, peace - even joy - in Camden can be difficult. Lorenz gets both through her faith and from the people around her.

When she is not helping to take care of her five siblings or working at Friendly's, Najeerah is by Lorenz's side.

"We share the same goals. It's pretty much just been us all these years," Lorenz said.

Najeerah, the quieter, more discerning of the two, was No. 7 in the class and will head to Camden County College in the fall.

Lorenz's relationship with her grandmother, Rebecca Drayton, 69, also keeps her grounded.

She was living with Drayton when her father was killed in 1998. Drayton, distraught over losing a son, didn't want Lorenz, then 2, to move out. Naomee, who was working two jobs, taking classes, and caring for Takiese, then a toddler, agreed to continue the arrangement temporarily.

"She's been more like a daughter to me than a granddaughter," Drayton said in her quaint one-bedroom apartment in a senior housing complex.

Drayton, who grew up in South Carolina and never graduated from high school, emphasized education to her granddaughter. Lorenz matured quickly because of her advanced responsibilities at home, taking care of two senior citizens, Drayton and her husband, who has since died.

"If I have problems in school or if I feel like I'm losing focus, I come here," Lorenz said. "I come to her for wisdom."

When Lorenz was 11, Naomee decided it was time to bring her daughter home to live with her and Takiese. Reestablishing a relationship and overcoming some sibling rivalry for their mother's affections were rocky at first. But in time, mother and daughter became close.

This year the pressures of college application deadlines and year-end exams came to a head and caused spats between the two. Lorenz let her grades drop and Naomee had the rare experience of hearing concern at a parent-teacher conference. She confronted her daughter - who can sometimes lose focus when things get very difficult.

"I don't want her to just grow up and be an adult today. She's still 18. She's still a kid to me," Naomee said, stiffening for a moment. "But she does have to accept more responsibility for things."

As Naomee sees her daughter to the finish line, she is taking the next step herself, switching careers after 14 years working as a day-care assistant to culinary arts, for which she completed a 16-week certification course in June.

"It's not just a mother's love saying this: She's going to be one of the few that come out of Camden who's going to be something in life, and I can be proud of that," Naomee said. "I know her father's more than proud of her."

Prom night

Lorenz slams the door of the sedan and runs to her front door, her long hair curled, eyes and lips glamorously accentuated with sparkly makeup.

"You know what time it is?" Naomee asks sternly, surrounded by family members gathered for the pre-prom celebration. Her daughter kisses her on the cheek and darts upstairs to put on her dress - a floor-length red gown that hugs her perfectly and cost $10 at a used-dress sale in Cinnaminson.

She gets help touching up her hair in the bathroom as 2-year-old Zoriah Diaz, who was visiting, calls out: "Renz!" The little girl sees a picture in the house of Takiese, who is not her biological father but had been helping to raise her, and starts gleefully jumping up and down saying, "dada" again and again.

"He'll be back soon," Naomee tells her.

Outside, Lorenz's boyfriend, Nakeis Grant, arrives in a tuxedo with red vest and procures a boutonniere and corsage.

The two met at Wilson during Nakeis' senior year. Nakeis, 19, attended Fayetteville State University in North Carolina for one year but didn't like it and will enroll at Camden County this fall.

"He was a comedian, but he was also focused," she says.

Family members describe Nakeis as "one of the good guys."

"We talk about what we want in the future," he says. "We look at the people around us and we want more."

As they pack into the car and head off, attention turns to the mother. "You did a good job," Naomee's friends and family tell her.

At the Merion event hall in Cinnaminson, teachers stationed at the entrance greet students in gowns and masquerade masks, a departure from the khaki pants and orange, black, or white shirts required in school.

At $70 a ticket, only about half of the senior class attends.

Many of the teachers and counselors along the dance floor perimeter have gotten to know the students over the years and say their biggest objective has been injecting a sense of hope into their plans for the future.

"I like to say: You're not limited to anything. Dreams are free," said Pruitt, the counselor from Woodrow Wilson. "You can have as many as your heart and hand can hold."

Fisher, the health and physical-education teacher for 25 years at Wilson, just days before the prom points to other graduates to remind students of success stories here.

"I have so many former students that are working in the city, giving back," he says. "I wish people would come and talk to them - to see, yeah, some of them might have not been college-ready but they succeeded and they're professionals now."

Fisher has seen smart, athletic young men leave for the summer and return unable to even look him in the eye. He tries to pull them aside and intervene before it's too late. "I say, 'You keep going to the barbershop hanging out all day, eventually you're going to get a haircut.' "

At the end of prom night, staff from the Merion judge the king and queen competition. Each of about 20 young women takes a loop around the dance floor as names and short bios are read.

The waiters - the impartial judges - fill in score sheets and hand the forms to the counselors. Once the votes are tallied, all the hopefuls line the floor.

A charismatic basketball player, Dean Diggs, is crowned king.

Pruitt announces the queen: "And your prom queen, wearing beautiful Delta red, number five, Lorenz Bethea!"

Lorenz accepts the sparkling plastic tiara and she stilettos over to Nakeis, who lifts and twirls her in the air and whispers in her ear, "I love you."

College visit

It takes four hours, three trains, and a crowded bus to get from East Camden to New Jersey City University, a public school in Jersey City.

Lorenz, Naomee, and Nakeis walk through an iron archway. A large stone tower with stained-glass windows looks down on them, bright green lawns flank them.

It is two weeks before graduation and Lorenz is making her first visit to the college she will be attending in the fall. She was also accepted into Fairleigh Dickinson University, Seton Hall University, Benedict College, and Delaware State University.

Wilson has a college access center, established last year, which offers help to students and facilitates communication with colleges. But it has still been a strenuous and confusing process.

"Most people giving me advice haven't set foot on a college campus, outside of counselors," she says.

NJCU rose to the top of the list when it gave her a presidential scholarship, covering all four years' tuition.

The focus and motivation that got her through high school will have to work overtime here. Only 36 percent of students graduate within six years. Thirty percent of the freshmen who entered last year dropped out.

On the tour, Lorenz, Naomee, and Nakeis see classrooms - most are capped at 30 students so professors get to know your name, says Corey Brumfield, 22, a junior at the school.

They walk through the student union and the writing center. Brumfield tells them about study-abroad options, off-campus trips to nearby cities, and student clubs. Naomee asks about religious organizations and he lists a few.

Lorenz doesn't say much. She is overwhelmed by the commute and she has a two-hour placement exam yet to take. "It's just so many trains," she says. Nakeis says he'll find a way to get a car to drive up and get her when she needs to come home.

NJCU accepted 19 students from Camden City this year and five have matriculated. The school has long served mostly low-income students, and those who are the first in their family to go to college. Nearly 80 percent take remedial courses when they arrive, contributing to the length of time it takes to graduate, president Sue Henderson said.

"She'll have the same issues, I suspect, that a lot of students who have spent most of their lives at home have to deal with," Henderson said. "The thing I think she'll be comfortable with is we're made up of hardworking students who don't know how smart they are."

Graduation

At the Rutgers-Camden gymnasium, Lorenz, draped in a yellow cloth stole designating her the valedictorian, leads her class of 200 success stories in a proud procession toward their seats.

As "Pomp and Circumstance" plays, parents leap to their feet, screaming out names and "I love you." Some, unable to contain themselves, bolt from the bleachers to hug their passing child.

Naomee stands along the back wall of the packed gym. She had been up late helping Lorenz with her speech and when her daughter takes the dais and addresses the crowd, the words sound strong and familiar.

"The cycle has been broken in someone's family today," Lorenz says. "You have set a certain standard for future generations to aspire to."

The three-minute speech ends with a quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on perseverance. It is an attribute crucial for Camden's students.

"If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl," Lorenz says, pausing for a moment to look out at the city-bred graduates. "But whatever you do you have to keep moving forward."


> Inquirer.com

More on Lorenz Bethea's journey

and a video interview at www.inquirer.com/

success.


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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