RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This morning, we'd like you to meet someone. His name is Davon. Let's see if we can reach him by cell phone.
(Soundbite of voice mail recording)
Mr. DAVON FLEMING (Student, Northwestern High School, Baltimore): (singing) Davon's not here, so go it on. Leave him a message. Leave him a name and a number. And he'll be sure to give back to you, oh, oh, oh, ow.
MONTAGNE: Davon is obviously busy, but you get a sense of who he is. He is a tenth grader at Northwestern High School in Baltimore where NPR's Larry Abramson caught up with him. Northwestern is a big urban school that's been having some success in improving attendance and test scores, but students still score well below state and federal standards.
Davon Fleming is one student, who's hitting the right note, both at home and at school.
Unidentified Woman: Teachers, please, if a student is in your room, out of uniform, please ask them to either produce a uniform violation letter or a…
LARRY ABRAMSON: A few weeks ago, life at Northwestern was suddenly disrupted. Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, a graduate of the school, decided to make a surprise visit to a journalism class. Staff went into VIP mode, making sure the halls were clear, and that all students are in uniform to prepare for the mayor.
Mayor SHEILA DIXON (Baltimore): Do you play football here at Northwestern? JV? Varsity?
Unidentified Man: Varsity now.
Mayor DIXON: Varsity now. Okay, and what position?
Unidentified Man: Running back.
ABRAMSON: Mayor Dixon sat down with a dozen students. She attended the school back when it was a very different place in the early 1970s. She remembers when whites and blacks mingled comfortably at the school. Now, the population is 99 percent black.
Students wanted to ask Dixon some questions. But first, she wanted to know who are you? What's your passion?
Mr. FLEMING: My name is Davon Fleming, 15 years old. I live right across the street, right across the street.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FLEMING: Yeah. (Unintelligible)
ABRAMSON: The moment Davon Fleming starts talking, the giggling starts. Davon just gets people smiling. When the mayor asked about his goals, he doesn't hesitate.
Mr. FLEMING: To be a well-known singer. Practice my craft.
ABRAMSON: The mayor cannot let that go by. She has to hear him sing.
(Soundbite of crowd)
Mr. FLEMING: (Singing) Give thanks with a grateful heart. Give thanks to the holy one. Give thanks because he's given Jesus Christ his son. Give thanks.
(Soundbite of applause)
ABRAMSON: Davon is a standout in a lot of ways. His talent and his grades could have gotten him into a more selective school.
Mr. FLEMING: I thought about going to School for the Arts. I auditioned, but they didn't accept me. They didn't accept nobody in my middle school, so I was kind of heartbroken - but I had to move on, life goes on - and stay at Northwestern because I love Northwestern.
ABRAMSON: Sometimes Northwestern is hard to love. After the mayor leaves, I followed Davon to another class - Geometry. The teacher is Don Reese(ph).
Mr. DON REESE (Geometry Teacher, Northwestern High School): All right, so, get it back. I need you to shut your mouth up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ABRAMSON: Mr. Reese has an objective, and he has 90 minutes to get there. But two young men keep him from moving forward. Davon tries to help out by reading the objective out loud.
Mr. FLEMING: I'll read the objective. Excuse me, ya'll. (Unintelligible) the distance formula (unintelligible) coordinate (unintelligible) of the center of the circle and left of the diameter.
ABRAMSON: Davon is a stocky kid. His hair is short. His face is framed by wispy sideburns that point the way to that perpetual grin. He's no angel. He chats with a seatmate when he knows he shouldn't, but he wants to succeed.
Mr. FLEMING: We thought it (unintelligible) against people.
Mr. REESE: (Unintelligible) almost did Davon.
Mr. FLEMING: Okay. I think X T, take away X one.
ABRAMSON: The class proceeds in fits and starts. One offending student is removed, but then returns. After class, Davon apologizes for his fellow students and he says he's talked to the teacher about them.
Mr. FLEMING: And I always tell him, well - if they keep cussing you out and showing their tails off in the class, maybe you should put them out or something like that.
ABRAMSON: What do you think the school should do about that? I mean, if you kick the kids out of the class, then they miss the material.
Mr. FLEMING: Right. Maybe what we can have - start a type of group or session where we can set them aside and have a conversations, well, why did you act, why did you disturb the class. Is there issues at home? Or maybe…
ABRAMSON: But here's the question, is Davon learning as much as he should here? Amy Ensign, Davon's journalism teacher says he is. And she says Davon is also learning some things beyond the academics.
Ms. AMY ENSIGN (Journalism Teacher, Northwestern High School): He's not someone who is just going to sit back and let other people sort of stomp on his opportunities. And at the same time, it's not just good enough for him to fight for his own opportunities, but he wants to see good things happen for everybody. So if he can help anybody out, he tries.
ABRAMSON: Davon gets much of his strength from home. He is clearly close with his brothers, and with his father Reggie. His mom lives out of state. Reggie Fleming says that, like everyone else in the family, Davon loves music.
Mr. REGGIE FLEMING (Davon's Father): I mean, the teacher, you know, when we used to go up when he was small. Teacher said the only thing we have is - Davon just sings a lot. She'd say, but it's good because it's helping him to learn his ABCs. He will always sing it.
ABRAMSON: All three of the Fleming boys went to Northwestern High. Reggie Fleming, who used to work for the Baltimore schools has watched his neighborhood high school lose its reputation, and then struggled to regain it. Things are on the upswing now, and Reggie Fleming says that's why he wants to keep Davon in this school.
Mr. R. FLEMING: Sometimes you can't run from problems. You've got to attack it, you know what I mean? And try to change things. And Davon has that attitude -you put him at an atmosphere, Davon can change the atmosphere.
ABRAMSON: So you want to support the school?
Mr. R. FLEMING: Exactly.
ABRAMSON: Davon and his family spend Sundays singing at the Beth El Temple Church of Christ. Reggie is a deacon, Davon sings in the choir. For three hours, Davon stands in his white and pink robes and sings with a passion.
(Soundbite of church choir)
ABRAMSON: Beth El is a Pentecostal church, not far from Northwestern High. The service is a mix of rocking good music, speaking in tongues and high-powered preaching.
Bishop RICHARD PENDER (Pastor, Beth El Temple Church of Christ): You want to give him the same praise. That devil is a liar. Everybody, give him a praise, everybody.
ABRAMSON: Bishop Richard Pender preaches for a full hour, gyrating to the music while the congregation including a lot of senior citizens, dances in the aisle. Davon is at home here. His grin keeps on shining and he just waits for his turn to sing again.
(Soundbite of church choir)
ABRAMSON: Larry Abramson, NPR News.
(Soundbite of church choir)
MONTAGNE: Davon's story is part of an ongoing series of reports from Baltimore's Northwestern High. To find out why we chose this school and hear past reports, go to npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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