In high school, Epryl King once purposely scored low on a math test.
She wanted to be placed in a lower-level math course with her friends. Academic achievement wasn't cool or encouraged. College wasn't expected. However, although she was an average but underachieving high school student, she became a scholarly collegian.
"In college, I felt encouraged and nurtured enough to reach my potential," said Mrs. King, 32, now a Gateway School District second-grade teacher with a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's of education in curriculum and instruction.
While doing research for her master's degree, she was horrified to learn of the achievement gaps between minority students and white students, low-income students and students from more financially advantaged families, and disabled students and able-bodied students.
"These groups need someone to advocate for them," she says. "It's a justice issue. They need a chance in life to be successful and to enjoy the freedoms the country promises."
That's why two years ago, she started the RAMP -- Raising Achievement in Monroeville and Pitcairn -- program to help close the educational gap for disadvantaged students. RAMP includes K-12 tutoring and grade-improvement incentive programs for fifth- to eighth-graders.
For her efforts in creating RAMP and nurturing the program's growth, Mrs. King has been named one of seven winners of the 2008 Jefferson Awards for Public Service. The program honors outstanding volunteers and is administered locally by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the following sponsors: Highmark, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.
She will be honored at a ceremony Feb. 12 at the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, where The Grable Foundation will donate $1,000 to RAMP on her behalf.
"RAMP is not me, it's us," she said of the volunteer tutors, board members, community members, civic groups, churches and businesses helping support the program. "I'm very grateful and humbled by this recognition."
"I've known since I was very young that I wanted to make a difference," she says. "A lot of my friends didn't go to college and weren't in advanced classes."
So, making people aware of the problem of achievement gaps and trying to combat those gaps through nurturing academic achievement among disadvantaged students have been her goals.
Studies have shown the most important factor in student achievement, for African-Americans in particular, is teacher encouragement.
"When they said you could, you believed them," she said. "And when they said you can't, you believed them, too."
Tutors meet with students at least one hour a week at the Monroeville Public Library. Several area restaurants offer free meals for the grade-incentive reward program. Youngsters have to improve at least one letter grade or have at least a B average to receive a reward card.
"I'm so impressed that a person as young as she is, is doing what she's doing," says RAMP tutor Nancy Jones. "I see Epryl's efforts developing into something that could be a statewide program."
Those who work with her in RAMP admire her drive and commitment.
"When you're around her and hear her talk about it, you can just see the love she has for it," says Brunette Richards, a RAMP tutor and board member. "You can't help but feel the passion and absorb it yourself."
Mrs. King connects the volunteer tutors with youngsters and meets with tutors, teachers, community members, civic groups and businesses in search of support for the program.
"She's wonderful," said Marlene Dean, a RAMP board member. "I love her vision."
Her enthusiasm for education always has been an inspiration, said Mrs. King's mother, Purdis L. Lewis-Burke, who nominated her for the award.
"When she got involved with statistics and started seeing the disparities that were there and the [achievement] gaps, she did her homework and set a goal," Mrs. Lewis-Burke said.
Mrs. King devotes about 30 hours a month to RAMP, balancing that with her responsibilities as a teacher, wife and mom.
"I'm trying to help change the world for her," she says, hugging her 10-year-old daughter Aiyanna. "We all have to do our part. This problem cannot be solved by parents alone or teachers alone or kids alone, but as a community we need to come together and work together to make a difference."
For more information about RAMP call 412-443-4556 or visit achievementgap.info and click on community solutions.
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L.A. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3903.