This is the first of a three-part series about community efforts and education reform on Charleston’s West Side.
By Mackenzie Mays
Ana Johnson was hoping for an eviction notice.
Proof of eviction meant, if she rushed documentation to the Salvation Army in time, she could receive help with her rent at Orchard Manor, a public housing development on Charleston’s West Side.
Johnson got her wish, but after the panic was over, she was reminded of what she was fighting for — to continue living in a home where she doesn’t feel at home at all.
“At Orchard Manor, people stay to themselves,” she said. “Someone could commit a murder and no one would call the cops.”
Despite that, Johnson stays, because it means a roof over the heads of her three sons, Traivon, Traiton and Traimere.
Johnson, 34, had all but given up when she met the Rev. Matthew Watts, pastor at the Grace Bible Church and a community leader on the West Side. Watts also is a leading voice for the Community School pilot program happening on Charleston’s West Side, which was passed by the West Virginia Legislature last year.
The Community School project aims to turn around the five low-achieving schools on the West Side, including Grandview Elementary and Stonewall Jackson Middle, where Johnson’s children attend, through teaching strategies and partnerships with a variety of social service agencies.
Watts took Johnson’s boys in, adding them to the list of children who go to his church every day after school to get a free meal, help with their homework and other mentor opportunities.
Watts’ is one of several similar programs on the West Side — an attempt to lessen the burden on struggling families and allow students to focus on their schoolwork while they’re in school, instead of on problems at home or hunger pains.
In Johnson’s case, it’s working.
Traimere, a 7-year-old with a ponytail dwarfed by his backpack, pushed a folder toward his mother as he ate a corndog off a Styrofoam plate in the basement of Grace Bible Church — his tiny legs dangling from his chair, not long enough to touch the floor.
Johnson beamed as she opened the folder and showed off Traimere’s “A” papers.
“He can read on a third-grade level, and the middle one, his spelling score at midterm was 156.6 percent because he gets every answer right, plus the bonus. He can outspell fourth-graders,” she said. “As long as they get to school . . . They’ve got to go to school. They never miss school.”
Johnson is raising the three boys — all under the age of 12 — on her own. Before she met Watts, she had just lost her job with an elderly care company because her car broke down, which meant she had to schedule her shifts around available bus routes.
With no one to care for her children, she struggled to find a work schedule that allowed her to get home by the time the kids returned from school.
“It was so bad, I’d just sleep. I didn’t want to do anything. Of course, I still took care of my kids. I made sure they ate. But I think I must have been in a deep depression,” Johnson said. “And it’s not like I could pick up the phone and call my mom or my family.”
Johnson’s mother died when she was only 4 years old, and her father sent her from her home in Brazil to the United States as a foster child “for a better life.”
Her first adoptive father beat her so bad that a teacher noticed her wincing when she tried to sit down at her desk in a New Mexico classroom.
Johnson could barely speak English then but, to this day, she still defends herself against the act that set her new American father off — an overflowed toilet.
“It wasn’t me,” she said, now speaking nearly perfect English, but barely above a whisper. “He lost his temper.”
She was placed in a children’s home and then sent to live with a strict family in Pennsylvania, where she wasn’t allowed to watch TV or listen to the radio, and is convinced the couple collected foster children only to use them as maids.
Johnson said she might be the only 14-year-old to ever love boarding school so much — what she remembers as a welcome vacation when compared to her home life.
“But I got a good education because they pushed us,” she said.
Johnson entered the Job Corps — an education and job-training program — at 16, passed her GED within a week and fell in love with her children’s father. But their father has been in prison since 2010.
“He didn’t want to leave the streets alone,” Johnson said. “[The kids] still be asking. They still remember him. The two little ones, for the longest time, I used to tell them he was in a beach clubhouse. They’re like, ‘We want to go to a beach clubhouse.’ But I think they caught on now.”
After she connected with Watts and his HOPE Community Development Corp., a church van was picking her sons up every day. She had one less meal to worry about, more time designated for her children’s education and more positive influences in their lives.
Soon, the changes Johnson saw in her sons made her want to tag along.
She offered her spare time to the other children in the program without mothers there of their own. “The church ladies” offered her odd jobs, cleaning houses and filing papers.
“I feel bad for the others because of how much they love me . . . . I’m the only mother here,” Johnson said. “We had gone to church before, but it wasn’t a church family. Not like this. I don’t know if you call it luck or just being in the right place at the right time, but for the longest time, it was just me and [the kids], and I was lost.”
All of Johnson’s problems aren’t gone. She still worries about her oldest, who’s struggled with behavioral problems at his middle school — getting into fights and going to detention. Two of the three have been diagnosed with severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She still has to depend on a food pantry every now and then.
But things are better and, most importantly to Johnson, her kids are going to school, and doing well.
“People don’t understand what it’s like. They don’t get it,” she said. “But it is better now. It’s less stressful.”
Watts said Johnson’s is only one story of dozens, although they often are similar.
He said a majority of the children he works with on the West Side are living with single mothers in subsidized housing or have at least one parent incarcerated.
Most of the families are minorities in a state where more than 93 percent of the population is white.
The West Side recently has been plagued with drug trafficking and several shootings.
Watts’ goal, and a goal of the Community School model, is to help relieve some of those pressures outside of the classroom so that they don’t continue to manifest in the children’s schoolwork.
“The people over here, they have a lot of pride. They don’t want to be a spectacle. They don’t want a lot of handouts or be viewed as charity cases,” Watts said. “[Johnson] was able to connect with people and start building relationships and saw a genuine, authentic concern people have for her children and her.
“It doesn’t always work like that . . . . She pulls and tugs with these boys, and she does everything because she wants her boys to be educated.”
The only way to fix the West Side schools’ low test scores and high absentee rates is to fix what’s going on at home, Watts said.
“I’m not one to blame principals and teachers. I realize we have a broken community. Everything’s broken, and it’s manifested itself in our kids having all kinds of trouble,” he said. “We just want to give a sense of encouragement and some hope that they’re not alone. And we have people who are willing to go that extra mile. But we can’t do it alone, either.”
For more information on the after-school program, contact HOPE Community Development Corporation at 304-343-4673.
In Monday’s Gazette, the second part of the “Revival” series will focus on a group of West Side citizens who are on a crusade to get kids off the streets and change the reputation of their community.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 304-348-4814.