Turning Heads with the Turner 12
John Carter volunteered in Dallas schools until a teacher told him that “the only reason she was still teaching was because she got 3 months off in the summer.”
That’s when he knew that he needed to make a difference. That’s when he became a teacher himself, and that’s eventually how he came to change the lives of more than 20 young people in South Dallas.
A former sports writer in Dallas, ‘Coach’ Carter taught math, English, and volunteered as a coach in DISD for several years with the dream of becoming a principal. He felt himself in the same position that a lot of us sense when it comes to our city’s schools– frustrated, confused, and hemmed in by politics– but he knew firsthand how committed and consistent follow-up could change his students’ lives. He thought if he could reach out to a few students who were struggling, but had potential, he could mentor and coach them into being incredibly successful adults. As he shared his ideas with people he met, Carter eventually secured funding for his project and started Turner 12.
In 2000, he approached 12 sixth-graders whose potential had been identified by their teachers. He sat down the the students and their parents to discuss the commitment he wanted them to undertake: six-years of mentoring, diligent studies, personal development, and career planning to carry them through their senior year and into college. Of those students, whose grades had previously been in the low-B/high-C range, 5 were amongst the top 10 students at their graduation in 2005. Nine were in the top 10 percent of their class, and all were off to college.
Growing up in a housing project about 10 minutes from where he works today, Carter himself had been fostered inside and outside the classroom by two teachers that took an interest in his success. His 5th grade teacher gave him rides home, bonded with Carter’s grandmother, and even invited Carter into her own home.
“She showed me life outside the housing development… she opened up this passion for wanting more,” Coach Carter explains. He remembers that his first visit to Mrs. Polk’s home was also the first time he had seen a fireplace, and was determined that one day he would have the same thing in his own home. Carter’s high school English teacher, Mrs. Jeffries, spurred his interest in writing by asking him to write for the school newspaper.
“A lot of who I am and what drives me comes from living in that project,” Carter says, “but I am who I am because of those two teachers.”
Carter pays that forward today in the students that join Turner 12, and the friends of Turner 12 students who are driven to achieve at the same level.
“I remember asking her, ‘Alicia, do you know what a valedictorian is?’ and of course she didn’t. I said ‘I think you would be a great valedictorian.’” Alicia was an athlete and promising student; she reminded Carter of himself at a younger age. Alicia worked hard and moved into the top of her class. Meanwhile Alicia’s friend Bianca, who hadn’t been accepted to the Turner 12 program but participated as a sort of ‘surrogate’ in many of the group’s activities, worked equally hard. In their senior year, Bianca moved into Alicia’s place at the top, and graduated as valedictorian. The two friends split up when Bianca went to Texas A&M and Alicia went to the University of Texas, and the two continue their rivalry to this day.
75% of Dallas high school students graduate, compared to an 85% state average.
Twenty-four students have completed the Turner 12 program since that first graduating class of 2005. At the end of this year the program will boast 6 college graduates and one Master’s program graduate, with many of the students continuing to law or medical programs. In a neighborhood where less than two thirds of students graduate high school, Carter’s success is making a big impact. Not only have applications for the Turner 12 program increased, but at any time the program has between eight and ten additional students who participate as ‘surrogate’ Turner 12 students. During the ‘Summer of Choice’ program, each Turner 12 student can choose a peer to join in a six-week leadership development program that stimulates community involvement and awareness.
Despite Carter’s unique personal history and his insider’s perspective of the education world, he believes more people could do similar work to make real changes in how students become successful. “There’s nothing really magical about what I do,” Carter says of the program’s success. ”We’re not a nine-to-five organization. I was with them until 8:30 last night at a board member’s home working with a writing specialist. There’s a lot of special people involved, a lot of commitment, a lot of personalism. I think the kids would tell you how important it is to be personal.”
So what would he suggest to those who want to make a change in our current education system?
“Know without a doubt that this is how you want to live your life, to make a difference. It can’t be about money, it can’t be about anything but knowing without a shadow of a doubt that ‘I want to make a change.’ You’re gonna be challenged, and think ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ but you have to know you want to do this.”
Carter doesn’t deny that the sacrifices he’s made for Turner 12– the long hours, the endless search for support, the bureaucracy of both the school district and the non-profit sector– have taken their tolls. His hours are always extended, and he does not (as his long-ago co-worker told him) get 3 months off every year; the students take college tours in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas when they aren’t in school. But he takes these commitments in stride with the successes of his program.
“The greatest lessons that we teach our kids are not the ones inside the classroom, but outside. When kids see that you really care about them, they start to respond to what you want for them, and there’s nothing they wouldn’t do to achieve,” Carter says, looking at the 24 senior portraits on his office wall. “There’s nothing I think I could enjoy more than what I’m doing now.”
The current Turner 12 class is in 7th grade, and there’s no telling what awaits in their future. If last year’s class is any indication, Coach Carter’s group will be the men and women to watch in 2017.
How you can help:
The Turner 12 is always looking for mentors to work with students on personal goals, professional shadowing opportunities to allow a student to see what their dream job is like, board members with a heart for education and a passion for kids, speakers on themes like prioritization, time management, etc., and funding sources to grow and build the Turner 12 program.