- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - By any measure, the educational climate at Richmond’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School is nothing to cheer about.

The school’s enrollment is overwhelmingly impoverished, with 93 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch in 2014.

The Church Hill middle school has been denied accreditation because of abysmal test scores, with pass rates below 25 percent in reading, math, writing and science.

MLK has experienced constant staff turnover - four principals in six years - incidents of violence and complaints of an unsafe working environment.

But cheer Toniyah Ross does, as the 12-year-old sidesteps the potential pitfalls at her school and within her troubled public housing community.

Toniyah, nicknamed “Butter,” is a seventh-grader at Martin Luther King, a gleaming $40 million school that opened in January 2014. It replaced a facility that opened in 1964 as Mosby School.

She’s the co-captain of the MLK Titan cheering squad, aka King’s Queens. Her leadership role is a rare distinction for a seventh-grader.

“At our banquet, (cheerleader coach Loretta Watson) said I can cheer, I can dance. … I’m always there no matter what. It can be snowing outside, and I’m at practice. She said I’m dedicated to the squad,” Toniyah said.

For Toniyah’s mother, Simone Sapp, the honor is a validation.

“I always tell you when y’all work hard and you do what you’re supposed to do, people see that and they recognize the drive that you have,” she said.

Asked what she likes about being a cheerleader, Toniyah smiled and paused during an interview in her family’s apartment.

“I like attention,” she said - perhaps even as much as her beloved sushi and cheesecake.

“She likes to be the star,” her mom said. “She likes to dance. She wants people to see her.”

Toniyah is small in stature and quiet of demeanor. But she lights up when she dons her blue and white uniform and leads a cheer.

At that moment, the shy youngster flashes a high-wattage smile, exuding take-charge confidence and a bit of swagger.

“She’s got that special spark,” said Page Luxmoore, a Richmond Public Schools volunteer who has known Toniyah since she was a rising first-grader.

So, apparently, do King’s Queens. The squad won the citywide middle school cheering competition in 2014 and 2016.

In August, it participated in Macy’s “Shop for a Cause,” selling discount shopping passes and performing before an appreciative audience at the Short Pump Town Center store. The event is among the fundraisers required for the squad to be self-sufficient.

The girls do more than cheer. They perform community service, take local field trips to such places as the Science Museum of Virginia, and travel to the CIAA basketball tournament in Charlotte, N.C., to see college cheerleaders.

The CIAA event involved a larger crowd and venue than Toniyah previously had experienced, “But once I started cheering, I wasn’t scared anymore.”

Toniyah found her fears harder to contain during an incident this past school year, when a transfer student was attacked and bloodied as students ran screaming.

“I was scared,” Toniyah said. “I just didn’t know. I just ran to my cheerleading coach’s room.”

Her mother said students at MLK are targeted for having nice things or doing the right thing. But neither she nor her daughter see Toniyah as a victim.

“Uh-uh,” said Toniyah, shaking her head. “Not me.”

“She’s not going to take that,” her mom said. “I know her will is strong. You’re not going to back her in a corner.”

Toniyah lives in Mosby Court, in an apartment one block from MLK, with her single mom and six siblings ranging in age from 17 years to 8 months. She spends her summer with her father in another section of Mosby.

Sapp, who is unemployed, moved the family to Gilpin Court, another public housing community - where Sapp lived growing up - in search of a better life. They fled back to Mosby after bullets twice pierced their apartment.

But danger is difficult to escape. Last month, an 11-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl were caught in crossfire and shot in Mosby Court.

Toniyah’s family knows such violence firsthand.

“My cousin was gunned down in Whitcomb Court with my son, who was 2 years old,” her mother said.

Latonio Bratton, 22, was shot and killed in Whitcomb Court as he sat in a car on the afternoon of Aug. 21, 2011.

Toniyah’s younger brother, Tamon, was in the backseat of the car - which his mother just had exited - when a man fired numerous gunshots into the car.

“The medical examiner said if I was sitting in the car, I would be dead,” Sapp said.

Tamon was traumatized and required counseling. For a while, he assumed that the police officers who arrived at the scene were responsible for Bratton’s death.

Spotting an officer at a carnival, the youngster kicked him in the shin. “He said, ‘You killed my cousin, you killed my Uncle Tony.’ I apologized to the officer and told him the situation,” his mother recalled.

“That’s another reason why I try to stay on them to be on the right path,” she said. “It’s so many little cracks that you can fall in and get into so much trouble. And it’s so hard to get out of trouble.”

Luxmoore got to know Toniyah and her siblings through the Micah Initiative, an interfaith program that has placed about 1,500 volunteers in nearly two dozen Richmond elementary schools.

Sapp credits the volunteer and several teachers with helping to keep her children on track.

Luxmoore describes Toniyah as a natural leader.

“I’ve never really met a child who didn’t seem to like Toniyah. She’s smart … but she never looks down on others. She gets along with everybody, and she’s nice to people. … So it doesn’t surprise me in the least that they would pick her” as cheerleader co-captain.

Luxmoore, through her St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, started day field trips for scholar roll students at Woodville Elementary School, where she is a teacher’s assistant. Toniyah was a strong student at Woodville, so she was always part of those activities, she said.

“They’re all great kids. (Sapp) has done something tremendously right with her children,” Luxmoore said. She finds their resilience remarkable.

“Really, I think all of them could go to college if they were coming out of a family where the finances and everything were in place,” she said. “There are a lot of different hurdles that Toniyah will have to get over.”

One hurdle, perhaps, is Toniyah’s constricted horizons.

Toniyah mentions that she wants to study cosmetology in college.

“That’s what you want to do - people’s makeup?” her mom asks. She tells her daughter she can go to trade school for that.

Toniyah mentions that math is her favorite subject among the honors courses she takes at MLK. “The only thing I kind of thought of doing was being a teacher,” she said.

Through much of this particular afternoon, Toniyah dotes on her infant brother, D’Mani, frequently holding him.

“Butter is the nurturing type when they’re this small,” her mom said. “This age right here. She does not have a tolerance for bigger kids. So she’s definitely going to have to teach kindergarten.”

Teachers have had a profound influence on Toniyah. The youngster and her mom list their favorites, such as Noreen Walsh and LeChaune Perry, who taught her at Woodville, and Evette Cartwright, who taught her at Carver Elementary.

“She always said there were no stupid answers,” Toniyah said of Cartwright.

And then there’s Jonathan Metcalf, her Spanish teacher at Woodville.

“He still is involved in their life,” Sapp said. “He’s still hands-on with them, at the library, taking them to do things, taking them places, showing them things. He was here yesterday.”

“He takes us to the library, he buys us books, he takes us out to eat,” Toniyah said.

He also helped an older sister apply to Richmond’s Franklin Military Academy and assisted an older brother in his transition from Armstrong High School to a private school, Elijah House Academy.

Metcalf, who now teaches history at Franklin Military, taught Toniyah and her brother, Antonio, at Woodville.

He would accompany Toniyah to give the school announcements over the intercom, coaching her as she gave the greetings and the date in Spanish.

“Every morning, for 10 minutes, I was hanging out with one kid, one student. And that builds a rapport,” Metcalf said.

He lost track of Toniyah and her siblings when the family moved to Gilpin Court but reconnected when they returned to Mosby Court. With Simone’s blessing, he began dropping by their apartment regularly.

“She’s family now. Her and all her siblings, they’re family,” Metcalf said. “I call Simone sis. And it’s kind of like they’re my nieces and nephews.”

Metcalf, 33, has Toniyah and her siblings visit his house - two blocks from her apartment - for regular dinners of spaghetti or tacos, mostly prepared by the siblings.

“If it’s an environment where she can learn, and it’s organic and natural; she wants to be a part of it,” he said, whether they are watching a bicycle race, exploring the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, or sampling exotic foods such as kimchi.

“She’s down with trying anything. And she has an energy, an energy that can learn and adapt and be successful in life.”

That is, if she can stay on track.

“She gets what the right idea is, but the environment can be too strong,” Metcalf said. “The knowledge can be outweighed … by the cultural pressures. She’s aware; she’s very aware.”

He’d love to see Toniyah pursue a career in education. He said she’d be a natural teaching younger children, such as those who follow her around her neighborhood.

Woodville Elementary occupies a special place with the family. Sapp said her children were perennial spelling bee champions there.

“The teachers pick up on the little vibes of the kids, and they’re just so warm,” Sapp said. “They’re open to trying a lot of things. They’re never disrespectful.”

She can’t summon similarly fuzzy feelings about MLK.

She has seen students walking the halls cursing. “They’re supposed to be in a class somewhere. But as long as they’re not fighting nobody and flipping desks over, you just let them roam around,” she said.

She wonders about the examples being set at the school, particularly in light of the arrest of a security officer who was charged with felony and misdemeanor drug possession last January.

“It’s a nice school, pretty school. But inside that pretty school is ugly problems. And building a new school is not going to change the problems inside the school. It’s not going to make those kids automatically straighten up,” she said.

Sapp appears determined to use education to keep her children on the straight and narrow. “They know when it’s school time, that’s serious time. That’s serious business,” she said.

She lost her parents to cancer. But even before their deaths, her home life was far from stable.

“My mother was on drugs … father on drugs, I’m still a scholar roll student - studying by myself,” she said.

She ultimately went to live with an aunt and finished at Meadowbrook High School in Chesterfield County. She wanted to go to college, but her siblings needed her, she said.

“I went to take care of them. And that’s who I continue to be - the nurturer.”

“The things that went on, I’m supposed to be off the deep end, really. But the only thing it made me do is be on them more … push them to do what they’re supposed to do,” she said of her children.

“So they don’t have to be in this environment, in this neighborhood. They can be anywhere in the world they want to be, just as long as I keep them on the path they’re on now.”

Her love of learning came natural, “because it was so much drama and bullcrap at home, so school for me was kind of a release. It was where I can go and be a kid, I can go and be myself.”

Today, she’s revisiting her education through her children and trying to keep the drama at bay.

“I was her,” she said of Toniyah. “That was me.”

For Toniyah, learning is easy “if you block out all the rest of the stuff. … People trying to distract me, I ignore them,” the daughter said.

It’s a lesson her mother constantly preaches.

“They go to school, there’s nobody there but them,” Sapp said. “They go do what they’re supposed to do, and they don’t care what everybody else is doing.

“And that’s the only thing I try to teach them: Don’t let all of these obstacles and all of this foolishness defer you from your path.”


Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide