May 17, 2013 5:30 am • By Elisa Crouch email@example.com 314-340-8119All photos by by Christian Gooden, firstname.lastname@example.orgSt. Louis school's valedictorian debates her way to a full ride at Princeton
Destiny Crocket (center), the valedictorian at Clyde C. Miller Career Academy, and fellow debate team member Cameron Smith (left) talk with Eve Seyer, a Spanish teacher, before commencement ceremonies at America's Center on Monday, May 13, 2013. Crockett will be the first graduate of the school to attend an Ivy League university by starting at Princeton in the fall with a full scholarship.
Photo by Christian Gooden, email@example.com
ST. LOUIS • The roar was almost deafening as graduates of Clyde C. Miller Career Academy entered the auditorium at the America’s Center to receive their diplomas. Destiny Crockett took her seat on stage, her hands resting in her lap.
She wore a navy blue cap and gown. A silver and navy tassel hung from her mortarboard. But at first, there was nothing to distinguish the 17-year-old as valedictorian, the student with a 4.1 grade-point average, the one who had accomplished what no other student at the school had ever achieved.
Destiny is the first graduate of this St. Louis high school to ascend to the Ivy League, with a full scholarship to Princeton University, and full scholarship offers from Georgetown, Agnes Scott and Dartmouth universities.
She and her debate partner, Cameron Smith, were the first from St. Louis Public Schools to achieve Top 16 status at a national debate competition last month, putting Clyde C. Miller Academy on the national debate map.
In June, they’ll become the first qualifying St. Louis team to compete at the National Forensic League’s national debate tournament in Birmingham, Ala.
Principal Steve Warmack says the pair are the best students he’s seen in 40 years.
But Destiny doesn’t like to point these things out.
In her valedictory address, she told her 181 classmates that they share the same trajectory.
“We can ride the wind and fly farther than we ever thought we could,” she said. “Everyone is meant to fly.”
A DESIRE TO LEARN
Like many students in St. Louis Public Schools, Destiny grew up in humble circumstances, most recently in a red brick walk-up flat in the Tower Grove East neighborhood. Her father died before she was born. Her mother, Latoya Mickens, raised her while juggling work as a restorative therapist at a nursing home, and more recently, while earning her bachelor’s degree in business administration at Fontbonne University.
Mickens taught Destiny to read using a Langston Hughes poem, “I, Too.” In it, an African-American treated as a second-class citizen looks toward a much brighter future.
“That poem really told me what I wanted for Destiny,” Mickens said.
One recent morning, Destiny walked into a high school conference room, skipping lunch for an interview. The school of about 800 students just north of the Fox Theatre is a “choice” school without neighborhood boundaries, one whose entrance requirements include good behavior, attendance and grades.
Nevertheless, Destiny noticed her freshman year that too many of her classmates were struggling readers, she said. They came from district and charter middle schools across the city, some several grade levels behind.
Destiny had attended the city’s gifted schools — Kennard Classical Junior Academy and McKinley Classical Junior Academy. Coming to Clyde C. Miller was a culture shock, Destiny said.
“It was amazing to me that some kids aren’t reading on grade level but still can get straight A’s,” she said.
Destiny points to that year as when her passion for education reform began. She started consuming books about education and race — works by Jonathan Kozol, Wendy Kopp, Cornel West. She began to see education as a great equalizer — and failing schools as the fault of a community.
Her desire to learn only grew. She began challenging her teachers to push her more. If her classes weren’t rigorous enough, her mother came to the school and spoke up.
“Destiny will be the first to demand teaching,” said Samantha Smith, a debate coach. “All four years she’s had somebody she wants more from, in terms of ‘teach me, teach me, teach me.’”
Occasionally, Destiny felt a nagging fear. It stemmed from an increasing awareness of the disparities between her school and those in wealthier suburbs. She wondered if she could ever measure up.
“My fear has always been being left behind,” Destiny said.
Destiny didn’t seek out debate; she stumbled upon it. One day during cross country practice her freshman year she heard the debate team needed members, so she decided to give it a try.
Debate fed her appetite to learn. It involved research. Analytical thinking. Argument.
The St. Louis school district had begun a partnership with the newly formed St. Louis Urban Debate League, which provided resources that city high schools needed to start or restart debate programs. Clyde C. Miller is one of nine schools under its umbrella.
Destiny was soon paired with Cameron Smith, also a freshman who’d come from Langston Middle School. In time, they became best friends.
“It was sort of random how we were paired,” Cameron said. But right away, he added, “We were a force to reckon with.”
They built cases around the topics of poverty, military and foreign policy, space exploration, and transportation. They mastered ways of arguing both sides of any issue.
Losing pushed Destiny and Cameron harder. Winning fed their addiction to debate.
They had a winning streak their sophomore year, trouncing debaters from other city high schools. Their junior year, they competed against teams from St. Louis County, and across the state.This year they were undefeated at the Missouri qualifiers for the National Forensic League debate competition next month in Birmingham. And in April, their top 16 finish at the Urban Debate League’s national competition was “a profound first for our city,” debate coach Andrew Gallagher said.
It was just as important to Destiny and Cameron to defeat teams from St. Louis County, where debate teams have more experience and resources, they said.
“It told me maybe I can think on my feet a little bit more than a Clayton kid,” Destiny said.
“When you go out there and outsmart them, confuse them, or flat-out beat them like they’ve never debated before, it’s a good feeling,” Cameron said.
Destiny and Cameron finished their freshman year as the only two who stuck with debate at Clyde C. Miller. Now the team is about 15 students strong, in large part because of their effort, Gallagher said.
“They have been the cornerstone of this debate program,” he said.
Inside America’s Center, hundreds of parents and family members cheered, shouted and whistled as the Class of 2013 received their diplomas.
Destiny watched with her steady gaze, sitting in the chair reserved for the valedictorian.
Her mother, grandmother and other extended family were in the first few rows of the auditorium. Cameron, the class president, was seated two chairs away, smiling.
Cameron will attend Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, on full scholarship. The school in northeast Texas is the scene of the 2007 film “The Great Debaters.”
At Princeton, Destiny wants to major in English with a concentration on urban policy. Eventually, she wants to play a role in transforming public education.
“I keep thinking I will be nervous,” she said of her journey. “But I don’t think I have anything to be nervous about. I don’t have any reservations.”
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