High school seniors surprised with scholarships from UIC’s Call Me MISTER program

Photos: Jenny Fontaine

As UIC College of Education Dean Alfred Tatum called out the names of the six young men in a town hall “Draft Day” ceremony Tuesday at Butler College Prep on the Far South Side, nearly 700 people filled the packed assembly with thundering applause and rousing screams of joy.

The students — five current Butler seniors as well as a current UIC freshman and Butler grad — jumped from their chairs in the first row to shake Tatum’s hand as they received a UIC school cap and red-and-blue striped UIC tie.

The students were here to be “drafted” into the second cohort of UIC’s “Call Me MISTER” program and receive a full-ride scholarship to make elementary classrooms their field of choice. The program is in its first year at UIC with a cohort of seven current students. The initiative aims to tackle the need to bring more male teachers of color into the nation’s classrooms where less than two percent of the teaching ranks are made up of black men.

Tatum called the March 19 presentation historic because of the number of students from one school and credited Butler Principal F. Christopher Goins for his efforts in pushing the students — who are part of his Introduction to Urban Education Course at Butler — to apply for spots in the program.

“Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of this city,” Tatum said to applause. “Never in the history of this city have we had six African American male high school students commit to become elementary school teachers. These young brothers don’t know it, but principals across the city and across the state are already vying to hire them before they’ve taken their first course.”

The Butler seniors who will receive the four-year scholarships are Teon Nesbitt, Jaylen Birt, Leonard Pinkston, Deangelo Evans and Trevon Turner. Reon Gillespie, a Butler graduate and current UIC freshman, was also honored in the ceremony after deciding to transfer majors and being accepted as a “Call Me MISTER” scholar. Recently, Tatum and others from UIC attended downstate Edwardsville High School and awarded the same scholarship to Jonah Durbin.

Speaking before his student body in a voice breaking with emotion, Goins reminded the students that when they began his class, he promised them if they worked hard he would help them. He said there is a direct correlation between educational attainment and a variety of life outcomes, including wealth and overall quality of life.

“I promised these young men if they took this walk with me and trusted me that I would put them in front of people who would be willing to write checks to fund their education,” Goins said. “We’re here today because six men right here are about to be awarded full-tuition scholarships for majoring in education to the University of Illinois at Chicago.”

Evans said becoming a teacher has been a goal of his since he was a sophomore at Butler, and he began dreaming about becoming a “Call Me MISTER” scholar when Tatum talked to his class about the program in the fall.

“I really wasn’t expecting it,” Evans said after hearing his name called out. “A four-year full ride is real hard to get. I really can do something with my life now.”

His mother, Jasmine Robinson, said she felt honored and especially happy since her son would join the teaching ranks and give back to the community.

“I’m just incredibly proud of him; he is such an amazing young man,” Robinson said.

When Nesbitt heard his name being called, he couldn’t believe his ears.

“I was just shocked because I had no idea I was getting a full scholarship to go to UIC,” Nesbitt said. “I just want to give back to my community.”

His proud father, Marvin Nesbitt, said the principal called him a few days ago to make sure he attended, saying he had a surprise for Nesbitt.

“I knew it was something big, but I didn’t know the magnitude of it,” Marvin Nesbitt said, his voice breaking with emotion. “This is extreme.”

Butler is part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. Noble Network CEO Constance Jones said she was so proud of the students’ efforts because it was “no small feat” and told the students that they “are going to make a difference.”

“To be here right now and to have these scholarships awarded, it is just indescribable. I know it took a lot of hard work,” Jones said.

“To UIC, I want to thank you so much for providing us and our students with the opportunity to pursue their dreams and to go out and represent African American men in this city who are dedicated to education, dedicated to change in our city and dedicated to supporting others.”