ichola Shanks refused to fail
Youth went from homeless shelter
t~ the top spot in his high school class
By NICOLE NORFLEET norjlen@phillyne,us.com
In Ellen Gray's Tuesday TV column, Keith Olber mann erred in saying that Bill O'Reilly and Sean Han nity have anchored news programs on primary nights, a "Fox News" spokesperson said yester day. According to Fox, O'Reilly and Hannity have provided on-air analysis and commentary.
N HlS high-school yearbook, the only photo of 18-year-old NicholasShanks is a shot of his se nior class in which he stares stern ly trom the back row. Nicnolas wasn't in social or aca demic clubs, didn't play on a sports team or go to a prom. But teachers and students at Martin Luther King High School won't soon forget the face of this young man, who, on his bunk in a crowded room in a homeless shel ter, studied after school, drew anime, and eventually became class valedictorian. "There were obstacles that I have had to overcome in my life so faJ'," he wrote in a college essay. "However, my inspiration and per sonal strengths have helped me deal with them." + Nicholas, an avid artist, com pleted college-level courses at MLK High, on Stenton Avenue. He graduated with the top GPA in the class of 2008 - a 3.91 - has been accepted to the Art Insti tute of Philadelphia, and plans to start this fall. He still hasn't fig ured out how to pay the annual tu ition ofat least $25,000 a year. "Just because you are in a bad situation," he told the Daily News in a recent interview, "doesn't mean you can't succeed."
ed, Newton said. Nicholas' father went to live with his own mother. And New ton and Nicholas went to stay at her mother's one-bedroom apart ment in the Northeast. It didn't last. His grandmother su ffered from emphysema and was unable to work. His mom was still jobless and said she also was battling a cocaine addiction. An uncle of Nicholas' had been helping the pay the bills but could not longer afford to do so. A month before he stal,ted high school, Nicholas, his mother and his grandmother were evicted again. "I expected it," Nicholas said softly. "Things just started falling apart." At age 14, Nicholas had to leave his friends, most possessions and set out for the unknown. With what little they could car ry, the family took refuge at Mount Airy Stenton Family Man or, a homeless shelt.er in German town. They were assigned a sec tion of the shelte,r's communal room sharp.d by several families. "It was terrible," Newton re called. "He went through depres sion. I went through depression. My mom went through depres
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The path to homelessness
When Nicholas was a child, he lived with both parents in a small apartment on Bustleton Avenue near Gifford, but it was far from a happy home. His parents were out of work and argued a lot, Nicholas said. They were drug addicts, his moth er, Sheila Newton, later admitted to the Daily News. "Nicholas was sheltered," New ton, 48, said. "We would be out here doing drugs and he would be in his bedroom. We would cover the cracks under the dOOl~" One morning when Nicholas was still in middle school, he woke up to loud pounds on the front door. They had been evict
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The food was miserable. Fights broke out among residents and there was no privacy, Newton said. She had to tell some women not to change in the open where ev eryone could see. She said their clothes WE're stolen trom the laun
Nicholas Shanks (above) with his mother, Sheila Newton. Tops in his class he's been accepted at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. and had to be moved to another shelter to relieve stress. And in 2005, Newton found a lump in her breast, was diag nosed with breast cancel' and had to undergo rndiation tl'eatments. Avenue near Lehigh. Visitors must sign in and no male over night guests are allowed. Nicholas was in 11th grade. The two-bedroom apartment was "way better" than the shel ter, said Nicholas, a shy. soft-spo ken, slender teen who is humble about his obvious accomplish ments. But it still had "shelter like conditions," he said, with CUl' fews at midnight and inspections. Martin Luther King High was an escape for him, his teachers said. Nicholas was quiet and intro verted, said David Mandell, 43, an MLK teacher who mentored Nicholas during his senior year. But ovel' time, Mandell, said, Nicholas started to verbalize his
Every weekday, Nicholas walked a block and a half to Mar tin Luther King High. After school, he returned to the shelter and studied in the communal room. To pass time, Nicholas drew Japanese anime figures, visited other teens' bunks and played vid eo games. Sometimes he visited his father. Shelter workers helped New tongetajob. But life didn't get easier. New ton's mother suffered a stroke
frustrations. "He overcame his anger through his artwork," Mandell said. "I don't think Nick would have made if it wasn't for his art work." Nicholas wouldn't let his life of homelessness deter him, said Mandell, who administered his advanced calculus test. "When I proctored that exam, everyone gave up ... " he said. "Nicholas was the only student in that room who actually perse vered." Amanda Fry, 23, Nicholas' ad vanced-physics teacher, said she considered him one of her best students. His optimism, she said, amazed her. "Especially in AP [advanced placement] physics, a lot of the kids complained all the time about how much work they had," she said. "Nick never com plained. It was just amazing to me because in some ways I think he had it harder than a lot of the other kids in the classroom." MLK High principal Kris Di viny remains impressed by Nicho las' achievements. "To know what he had to over come, from us who knew, it was re ally inspiring," she said.
MLK was his escape
Nicholas and his mother stayed at the shelter for two years and eventually were moved to a pri vateroom. It was there that she decided to kick her drug habit for her family and received support trom shel ter workers, Newton said. Then she and Nicholas found a new place to stay. They moved to secured transitional housing at a "visitation home"· on Kensington
Aiding homeless kid!;!
Homeless children are a "hid den population," said Dorette Li gons-Ham, regional coordinator of the city school district's Homeless Children's Initiative. About 6,000 kids grades K-12 were homeless last year out of the 197,000 who attended public and charter schools in the disSee SPARKS Page 6
THURSDAY, JULY 24, 2008
Continued from Page 4
trict, Ligons-Ham said. The number could even be higher. Many people don't report being homeless, she said; because they believe they have to live on' the streets to be so categorized. Children who live in emergen cy shelters or transitional hous ing and even those who stay tem porarily with friends or rela tives are homeless and face dis advantages, Ligons-Ham said. Homeless students tend to have higher rates of absentee ism, tardiness and discipline problems, said Deborah McMill an, assistant vice president of specialized health services for the Public Health Management Corporation. To help homeless students, Li gons-Ham and McMillan creat ed the Homeless Teen Educa tion Project, which targets eighth- graders preparing.to make the critical transition
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from middle school to high school, MI'Millan said. Elaine Colbert, teen-educa tion specialist for the project, a self-described "one-man show," said just this past school year, she worked with 81 kids, met with their teachers and parents, and checked on them at shel ters. "I have students who would not have graduated if I hadn't talked to their counselors," she said. It's difficult sometimes to help homeless students because they don't want their schools to know their secret, she said. Colhert met Nicholas when he was in 10th grade. She was so im pressed with his artwork that she helped him create a portfo lio. This summer, Nicholas is at tending the Traveler's Aid Soci ety of Philadelphia's summer program, which helps homeless
See SPARKS Page 24
students stay productive when school is out. Nicholas also works for the program, housed at the Kirk bride Center, at 49th Street near Arch in West Philadelphia, as a paid lab assistant. "When teens get into trouble, the first thing that goes out the wind.ow is school," said Mel
Monk, 48, pl'ogram dir·edor. When teens first become homeless, they stay out of school an average of three to six months, he said. "One of the thillKS with this group of kids is that education will be their key to success," Monk::;aid. "Nobody is going to drop an en dowment in their laps. " ... He's an example to the other students."
Nicholas' diploma and year book sit on the windowsill above his bed. Only a few friends scrawled messages in his book. "To Nick, you have to be the smartest boy I ever encoun tered," says one. "Nick, stay smart and I hope you do good in life," says another. Despite the praise, Nicholas doesn't view himself "a success story" until he fulfills more goals. He hopes to graduate from col lege and to become a graphic de signer for video games. ''When I was young, to just see the situation that my parents were .in," Nicholas said to de scribe his d,'ive and ambition, "I didn't want to be in that situation
He still doesn't know how he's going to get the money to attend the Art Institute. He has a few small scholarships from high school to help toward
his tuition, Colbert said, but not nearly enough to cover it. He was offered a four-year scholarship to Shippensburg Uni versity, in Cumberland County, but he turned it down, to his moth er'sdismay. Fry and Mandell said they en couraged him to apply to more schools, and Mandell helped' him to apply for scholarships. But, Nicholas admitted, he pro crastinated in applying, and hasn't heard anything yet. Nonetheless, he remains opti mistic that it will work out. His and his mother's housing contract expires Oct. I, and with bad credit and little money, New ton is struggling to find low-in come housing. Somehow, they say it will work out. "Whatever Nick puts his mind to, he is going to do it," Newton said.
"My relationship with Nick is wonderful now," Newton said. "He knows me and I know him. Before, I didn't take the time to get to know him like I should have just because I was on the drugs." Now they talk freely about their family problems and she can tell him how sorry she is, she said. She calls him her "godsend." And Nicholas says he has no shame or bitterness. He summed up his philosophy best on June 17, when he ad dressed his class as valedictori an. "Bad living conditions, society and harsh backgrounds may all sound like a set-up for failure, but good can come from it," he said. "Sometimes the negative acts as motivation to break out of the mold and make something out of nothing."