“My grandmother raised me, and my father lived in Atlanta. It was his move that introduced me to life outside of Memphis,” said Cafabian Heard, a Fairley High School alumnus (‘05) and former teacher. Visiting Atlanta also introduced him to Clark Atlanta University, where he graduated with a degree in theatre arts in 2009. When Heard first walked on to the Clark Atlanta campus, little did he know that soon enough a trail of Fairley alumni would soon be following his footsteps, largely due to his mentorship and encouragement.
There are currently seven Fairley alumni at Clark Atlanta, and six students from this year’s graduating class will be attending in the fall. “Clark Atlanta has built a strong community around the students who attend,” said Jocquell Rodgers, Green Dot’s Director of Community Engagement in Tennessee. “I have seen students leave Fairley High School, never having been outside of the city of Memphis, and find a home at Clark Atlanta. They are able to thrive and continue their academic journey towards graduating from college, often the first in their families, ready for leadership and life.”
Heard began unintentionally recruiting Fairley students to his alma mater when he started teaching English there in 2014, and then became the theatre arts teacher in 2015. He would show students videos and photos from college, and was one of the teacher chaperones on Fairley’s annual college tour trip, where they visited Clark Atlanta, Howard University and Spelman University. While he no longer teaches at Fairley, he returns each year to share more information through a “college boot camp” during spring break.
Mentoring Bulldogs to Become Panthers
For Rodgers, Heard’s full circle back from Memphis to Atlanta and back again has been particularly profound. Rodgers was also Heard’s seventh grade English teacher, as well as his mentor and Instructional Coach when he became a drama teacher at Fairley. “Cafabian came into Fairley determined to make an impact on his students academically and socially,” recalled Rodgers. “He became the theatre arts teacher his second year and I saw his true talent, as he introduced students to live stage performing. He was able to draw the best out of the most unlikely thespians. The students who took part in his productions also became his mentees.”
One of those students is Adam Wilson, whom Heard recruited from the sports field to the stage to be an extra in a school play. Wilson took to theatre and stayed involved in both drama and sports. He played football and baseball, was a student ambassador, and began a student mentorship program at Fairley called Real Deal Leadership. Wilson credits Heard for helping him grow into a well-rounded student and a leader: “Mr. Heard really brought me a long way as far as leading me in life, and not just in school. He really saw my potential and my ambition.”
Wilson also credits Heard with his decision to apply to and attend Clark Atlanta, where he received both a baseball scholarship and a large scholarship from Coca-Cola. Wilson is heading into his junior year, where he’s part of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity (the same fraternity as Heard). He is studying international marketing, because of which he’ll be studying abroad in China this upcoming year.
Wilson didn’t arrive at Clark Atlanta alone. He was also joined by fellow Bulldog Rayshonda Norfleet. Despite her shy and quiet demeanor, Heard was also able to convince Norfleet to get involved in theatre at Fairley. After participating in two plays, she slowly started coming out of her shell. Now she’s also heading into her junior year at Clark Atlanta, where’s she’s studying theatre arts. “She used to be afraid of speaking in public,” recalled Heard. “And now she’s majoring in theatre and she just competed in a pageant!”
How Fairley is Getting Students Ready for College
Both Heard and Wilson agree that Fairley and its staff has played a vital part in supporting this pipeline of students heading to Clark Atlanta. “Before Green Dot came to Fairley, kids were used to an easy way out, but Green Dot brought a sense of urgency,” said Heard. “Green Dot revealed a lot about the quality of education. I wish they were around when I was in school -- I thought I was a genius in school, and I was very low-performing when I went to college. I just wasn’t prepared.”
Wilson felt similarly. Green Dot began operating Fairley during his junior year, and it took him a year of adjusting to “more hands-on teachers and better technology” before Wilson felt like he was reaching his full potential as a student. “Before senior year, I didn’t have what it takes to get to college on educational level,” recalled Wilson. “The city of Memphis lacks resources, and Fairley gave me the resources I needed to get to the next level.”
Heard is excited about the college-ready learners Fairley is supporting. “Green Dot has really taught students to be responsible people outside of school,” said Heard. “Especially leaving high school in Memphis, it can be scary taking that leap into the world.” Yet now, year after year, Fairley students are continuing to take that leap into college with support and confidence.