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From selling drugs to teaching 4th graders: A Philly redemption story

Quamiir Trice's Philadelphia school career ended abruptly in 10th grade, when he was arrested. Since then, he's turned his life around, been mentored by President Barack Obama, and earned two college degrees. He begins teaching in Philadelphia in September.

Quamiir Trice will teach fourth graders at Bethune Elementary in North Philadelphia this fall.
Quamiir Trice will teach fourth graders at Bethune Elementary in North Philadelphia this fall.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Quamiir Trice was a 15-year-old high school sophomore with a report card full of F's when his time as a Philadelphia School District student abruptly ended: Arrested for selling crack, he was banished to the city's juvenile justice center.

Last week, his career as a School District teacher began. Trice completed his new-educator orientation Friday. In a few weeks, he steps before a class full of fourth graders at Bethune Elementary in North Philadelphia.

"I'm not running away from my past," said Trice, 23, whose astonishing rise came complete with mentors, personal pep talks from President Barack Obama, and multiple college degrees. "I'm using it as a teaching tool."

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. recruited Trice as part of a push to attract more teachers of color — specifically, black male teachers. For the school system, he is an astonishing catch, as he was recruited aggressively by districts around the country.

Schools across the U.S. struggle to hire teaching forces that reflect their students' diversity. About 2 percent of the teachers nationally are black males. In Philadelphia, that number is slightly better, but still just 5 percent – to teach a student body made up primarily of black students.

Studies document the importance of minority teachers to students of all races. And in Philadelphia, where about 35 percent of high school students do not graduate on time, there is urgency in improving their ranks.

Camika Royal, an assistant professor of education at Loyola University Maryland who studies race and school reform, said that Trice's presence in a Philadelphia classroom is powerful.

"We have to see more educators who show students that a different way is possible," said Royal, who attended Philadelphia schools and has researched them extensively.

"Quamiir is a fantastic story of what our young people are capable of when they are given not only opportunities but, in some cases, a second chance," said Hite. "He's a remarkable young man, and finding candidates like Quamiir is part of what we're trying to do more broadly."

Trice knows how unlikely his story seems.

Even as a kid, Trice was smart, but the things going on in his life outside the classroom complicated his education. He had trouble concentrating. He was transferred from school to school because of behavior problems.

"I had a bad rap," he said on a break from orientation last week, juggling a backpack and a fat binder stuffed with paperwork. "I was always disruptive."

His father was sentenced to life in prison when Trice was a baby. A younger brother died when Trice was in third grade. That same year, his mother lost custody of Trice. He still remembers the words officials used: "unfit parent," "drug addict." His grandmother, always a steady presence in his life, stepped in, but he was already adrift.

By the time he was a sophomore at Roxborough High, Trice was so deep into street life that he rarely showed up for class.

Getting locked up was a wake-up call, but the real epiphany came soon after, when two things happened in short order: Trice's best friend, the person he sold drugs with, was shot and killed. And he read a letter his younger brother wrote about him, saying how much he respected and looked up to Quamiir.

"I got really sensitive to the fact that I wasn't doing what I needed to do to lead me in the right direction," Trice said. "I can only imagine what he thought of me."

A judge sent Trice to St. Gabriel's Hall, a residential program in Montgomery County for troubled students from the Philadelphia area. There, he buckled down, became a student.

He had mentors and learned about forgiving himself. The flashes of brilliance buried earlier began showing through, and Trice graduated in 2011 as salutatorian and class speaker. He wasn't sure about college, but a summer program at Community College of Philadelphia showed him that he could do it.

Years before, an uncle called Trice "math whiz," and he used to have dreams that he was a professor on a leafy campus someplace. And once, out of nowhere, he said, when a woman who lived on the block where he dealt drugs asked Trice what he wanted to do with his life, he blurted out: Go to college.

It took three years to complete his associate's degree, but Trice excelled, and after CCP, he headed to Howard University in Washington. (The university's $43,000 annual price tag was daunting, but he found a way, spending his school breaks selling dinners his family helped him make at a family friend's social club.) He declared a major in elementary education — by that point, things had clicked, and he knew his main goal was not a paycheck.

"I got this mind-set: If I don't find a way to contribute to my community, what's the point of studying hard, of working hard?" Trice said. People continued to take notice. He earned strong grades, became a campus leader. He represented Howard's School of Education in the community and became a mentor himself. He traveled to Cuba to study schools there.

And then, last fall, he met Obama at a town-hall meeting at North Carolina A&T State University. Trice's past, the president said, was not a burden but a beacon.

"He said he was inspired by my story," Trice said. "He reminded me that I would be a great teacher."

Obama said that little separated Trice and himself, both black boys who grew up without fathers.

"He said he grew up in a more forgiving environment," Trice said. "He said our differences weren't based on our abilities."

It was his first meeting with Obama, but not his only meeting. He was invited back to the White House on multiple occasions, including last December, when he cohosted a fireside chat about opportunities for young people of color with former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. After Nutter asked Trice about his career plans, he waved over Hite, who was also on hand.

Trice had already been heavily recruited by other schools in New York, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and Louisville, Ky., who were also on the lookout for talented male educators of color. Graduate schools were in on the hunt, too. Syracuse University offered him a full ride to study for a master's degree there, he said.

But Hite's personal pitch was appealing. And when he told the superintendent he had a $6,000 gap in financial aid to finish his last semester of school, the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia offered a scholarship if he committed to his hometown district, which pays first-year teachers with bachelor's degrees $45,360.

"I felt wanted," said Trice, who lives now in Mount Airy and wants to earn a master's degree in education policy. "I felt like I was going to have the right support."

That support will be crucial, both in his first year teaching and going forward.

Long-term research by Richard Ingersoll, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, shows that teachers of color are far more likely to leave the profession than white teachers.

Black teachers often work in struggling schools where turnover is common. And it can be isolating to be the only or one of the only teachers of color in the building.

Trice is aware of the statistics.

But he's full of excitement and plans – how he's going to decorate, how he's going to make math and science come alive for his students – for his classroom at Bethune, at 33rd and Old York Road. He's waving off his brother's admonitions about how tough the kids will be toward him, and preparing for an education of his own. Trice knows how much he doesn't know.

"I'm eager to learn from them," he said of his students. "They have a lot to show me."

Trice never had a black man as a teacher. (He had two black women as teachers.) In a school where 70 percent of the children are African American and 80 percent are poor, what will it be like for them to have a teacher who comes from their neighborhood, who stands tall, dresses sharply, has tattoos up and down his arms?

He can't wait to find out.

"This all," Trice said, "feels like a fairy tale."