Darrenton Heath relies on his upbringing to help his son
“You, the parent, are your child’s first teacher.”
This often-recited quote, in reality, is the opposite of what educators tend to encounter.
Teachers at the Southside Academy Charter School, for example, have often been told by parents that teaching should happen in the classroom only. Yet this past school year, seventh-grade teachers at the academy met a parent who exemplifies this saying.
When 14-year-old Royalty Heath joined the academy in fall 2014, his father, Darrenton Heath, told the school he would be involved in his son’s education and wanted to see his son excel.
Royalty’s five teachers — who have a combined 26 years of teaching experience — could not recall a father ever being that invested.
Melissa Diaz, Royalty’s science and social studies teacher, said that when it comes to parents reviewing their children’s class lessons and homework, “We’ve had fathers in the past flat-out tell us, ‘It’s not my problem.’”
Brittany Gilbert teaches middle-school resource, which is a specialized class focused on helping students with physical or educational learning difficulties. “I have had fathers reach out and help with behavior issues, but never one help out so much academically,” she said of Royalty’s father.
To maintain his study habits, Royalty, now starting the eighth-grade at Southside, took summer classes at the no-cost public charter school. The academy offers full-day kindergarten through eighth-grade classes for 688 students. The small class size, curriculum and moral focus on respecting others made Heath feel assured that this was the school for his son.
“I couldn’t read before I got to my dad’s,” Royalty said. “He taught me.”
In all her nine years of teaching, Gilbert has not once encountered a father so invested. She said Royalty’s father will even seek extra work so he can better understand his son’s homework. For instance, “The Giver,” a novel written in a futuristic, dystopian (dreadful) society, was assigned by Royalty’s English teacher. The material was difficult for Royalty to grasp, so Heath promptly asked for a copy to review.
“Never have I had a father work to teach themselves so they can teach their child,” Gilbert said.
Heath, now 46, moved to Syracuse about five years ago, and by 2013, was reunited with his little boy.
“I remember the days he cried for his son to be with him again,” said Heath’s partner, Dawn S. Cheathan, recalling the period the father and son were absent from each other’s lives. When Heath learned of difficulties in Royalty’s life while the child was living in New York City, “that’s what gave him the get-up-and-go to do something about it,” she added. “He was going to get his son back.”
The family does not dwell or talk about this period. Instead they focus on moving forward.
“Knowing what I know of Royalty’s past,” said Allysa Pantano, Royalty’s math and homeroom teacher, “his life could have gone in two directions.”
She feels now Royalty’s life is on a good path “due to what his dad has done for him.”
AT HOME IN SYRACUSE
After Royalty arrived in Syracuse, Heath next assessed his son’s skill level.
“I said, ‘I’ve got to find out where you’re at,’” he recalled. “We had to start from the beginning, with the alphabet. When I found out how far behind he was, I was a little bit sad and a little frustrated, but not with him.”
As Heath searched for what to do, his late mother’s words came to him.
“Calmly I just heard my mother’s voice say to me: ‘Do it the way I did you.’”
Following this, Heath began to work from home so he could be more available for his son. He extended lessons past the school day and developed a regimented schedule for Royalty.
The value of education was ingrained into Heath at an early age. He and his siblings would tear apart old shoeboxes to create flash cards. They would write vocabulary words or math equations on each side and then quiz one another. Heath kept motivated because of the repetition of the material and the way he and his siblings made a game out of learning.
This method was passed on to Royalty.
“We quickly moved on to today’s glossy flash cards,” Heath said with a smile. But what hasn’t changed is the repetition and ensuing celebration over correct answers.
“I study so much because it will help me in life when I’m older,” Royalty said. “I want to be just like my dad when I grow up.”
Returning home recently, Royalty flips through his “Big Second Grade Work Book” before Heath reviews a list of spelling words with him on the front porch, encouraging him to sound out the “ough” in through, which Royalty starts to spell with an “ew.” Once Royalty says the word out loud, looking closely at his father’s lips, he gets the letter combination correct.
Next Heath says: “Good. Now spell it again.”
The two move inside to the dining room table, and Royalty works on math equations. Each weeknight, Royalty reviews vocabulary words, multiplication tables and study guides until 7 p.m., all under the watchful eye of his father. Then he takes a break to shower, and the two eat dinner together before he goes to bed.
This is their school-night routine. The TV never comes on, and video games are never played.
“My dad teaches me to use my mind,” Royalty said, explaining that TV watching drains one’s ability to think for himself.
Heath explains why he implemented the TV rule. “I’ve noticed that kids are now actually being raised by television. Parents are quick to say, ‘Go in your room and watch TV.’ But you cannot leave your kid in a room with cable TV. You have to come into that room, sit down and interact with your kids.”
This is the rule until Friday evening. Then the TV may come on, but only for around two hours, and joined by dad.
“If I do good in school and complete all my work,” Royalty said, “on the weekends, I get to watch TV or play video games.”
Heath adds that each Friday, Royalty is a little sharper, a little faster producing answers.
“I’ll give him the words to spell, and he’s knocking them down as I give them to him,” Heath said with quick snaps of his fingers. “He’ll say to me, ‘come on daddy, come on’ and I’ll go through his list as fast as I can. And when he’s finished, I tell him the magic words, ‘You can go watch TV or play games.’”
FRUSTRATION TO SUCCESS
This smooth study routine didn’t happen all at once. It took time to develop. When Heath started, his own frustrations, which slipped out in verbal blurts, had a huge impact on Royalty’s progress.
“I could see how it would affect him, and I had to teach myself not to do that,” Heath said of not letting his frustration show.
Now all victories, no matter how big or small, are celebrated with high fives and even a little celebratory dance. If Royalty gets it wrong, it’s no big deal. They do it again, and his father reassures him to keep trying.
“The same way I want to see him be positive, means I have to bring that same positive attitude to the table when we study,” said Heath, who graduated from John Jay High School in Brooklyn and completed some college coursework.
“So even when he starts feeling discouraged, I’ve got to be there to pick him up. Then that one time when he gets it right, and I get to see those eyes pop open with excitement and hear him say, ‘I did it, I did it,’ I can say, ‘Yes, you did it. With that work you put in. Now do it again.’”
Royalty is not yet up to grade level in his reading and math assessment, but his progress has greatly improved with the extra attention at home. His teachers describe a greater self-confidence in Royalty as the school year progressed, and he had a spike in his assessment scores by the end of the school year.
“Royalty is acutely aware of how he is perceived by his peers,” said Danielle Gerard, Royalty’s special education teacher who provided a thousand-word vocabulary list to Heath to review with his son. “Building (his) vocabulary allows him that self-esteem to feel like he’s on par. He knows that he struggles with reading, but he can feel confident enough to raise his hand and participate in a lesson because he has that vocabulary base to do it.”
His teachers note that at the beginning of the year, this was not the case.
“When he started, he was very quiet, and his participation was low,” said Tamera Dilmore, his English teacher. But by the last few months of school, she says his participation skyrocketed. “He wants to participate; he wants to share his ideas now. He’s become one of the, if not the most, hardworking scholar that I have.”
“He went up 19 points in ELA (reading) and 12 points in math, which is big jumps for any student,” Gerard said.
“And particularly for a student at this age,” resource teacher Gilbert adds. “A giant jump.”
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, two out of three eighth-graders can’t read proficiently. At Southside Charter Academy, 12 percent of students are noted with a disability, 90 percent are listed as economically disadvantaged and 82 percent of the student population is black, according to data from the 2013-2014 New York State Report Card.
Royalty’s attitude and respect for education also play into his success.
Because of his progress made on the assessment test, his special education teacher designed a certificate to recognize his “superior achievement.”
“It was the best $10 I spent all year,” Gerard said.
Designed with clip art, printed out on typical paper from the school’s resources and placed in a frame from the Dollar Store, Gerard noted it wasn’t anything extraordinary. But the scholars accepted their certificates “with great big grins and so much excitement at having their efforts recognized,” Gerard said.
“For some of these kids, that’s all they need (recognition),” she said. “Royalty has the benefit of getting it on a regular basis. He gets it from us and gets it from home.”
She says many of her students don’t get that extra support at home. “I don’t believe it’s entirely because parents don’t want to,” she said. “I think it’s because parents don’t know how or because their life struggles get in the way and take the priority.”
Since Royalty moved to Syracuse, he is his family’s priority.
Heath’s partner, Cheathan, explains. “The big reminder is: God did this for a reason. We have him for a reason. He needed us, and you know what, I think we needed him, too.”
She adds that having him join them made her feel like a mom again, noting her 23-year-old daughter has been out of the house for several years. She remembers telling Royalty, “I’m like your mom now.”
She recalls his reaction.
“‘Dawn, you are my mother now. You do everything for me my mom didn’t do,’” Cheathan said with great affection.
She says God has proved this was the right decision by seeing how much Royalty has excelled since he’s been with them. “I give the credit to God,” Cheathan said, “and I give it to Royalty’s father.”
She and the teachers note that Heath’s consistency, guidance and encouragement are the keys to Royalty’s academic growth.
Heath gives credit to Royalty, too.
“Royalty is a kid striving to better himself,” Heath said. “He knows he missed out, and he now has a thirst. And all I’m doing is guiding him along the way.”
— Article by Ashley Kang, The Stand’s director