This Life with Gracie: Sometimes, even good students need push in right direction

Come Saturday, Indigo Gill will be a college graduate, holder of a bachelor of science degree in biology from Xavier University, and in a year, on her way to medical school.

Gill always knew she’d attend college. She excelled at Lithonia’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School — in academics and extracurriculars.

On paper, she shined.

Then in the winter of 2011, she wore a beanie to school and, to her surprise, was banished to in-school suspension.

There her path crossed that of Harry Sapp, then MLK’s in-school suspension administrator, and suddenly what looked good on paper to Gill wasn’t good enough.

“Coach Sapp pushed me to do more, to tap into the leader that was within me,” she said.

That might not have happened, Sapp said, except Gill and another student confronted him first that day. Why, they wanted to know, were school officials constantly coming up with programs to help the “bad” kids while doing nothing for the “good” ones?

After nearly a decade at MLK, Sapp knew their observations were spot on. It was hard not to notice how both racial and gender disparities had left some disadvantaged and, in many cases, downright invisible.

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A study last year found, for instance, that black girls, from an early age, are perceived as more aggressive and sexual — less innocent — than white girls.

Sapp promised to speak to the school principal about an idea he had.

Within weeks of that conversation, he had created MLK Peer Essence, a mentoring group of some 20 freshmen with grade-point averages of 3.5 or above like Gill, who weren’t discipline problems and wanted to attend college.

Every Thursday over the next four years, they gathered for study sessions and peer counseling. They volunteered in the community. Wednesday was their designated professional day, when they dressed the part. They did mock interviews. They went on college tours and cultural trips. They applied to college.

By their senior year in 2014, the group was down to 18, but all of them graduated and headed to college, just as Sapp hoped. Gill was class valedictorian.

All but three, Tiara Thomas, Erin Hollman and Shayla Hopson, will graduate from college this month, with more than half from in-state schools like Georgia State, Georgia Southern and the University of Georgia. Like Gill, others chose out-of-state universities, including Alabama State and Hampton. Hollman and Thomas are on track to graduate in December; Hopson next year, all three from the University of Georgia.

Sixteen who graduated in 2015 will graduate next year; 18 more from the class of 2016 are scheduled to graduate in 2020.

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For Erica Parham, Peer Essence was the difference between her floundering and focusing on her future.

“It taught me discipline,” she said.

After graduating and heading to Albany State University, Parham, 21, said students kept in touch using social media — Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat.

On May 5, she earned a bachelor of science degree in health and human performance, becoming the first in her family to graduate from college.

A smile breaks out across Sapp’s face when he considers what that means.

“It makes me proud,” he said.

Sapp, now a paraprofessional at Elizabeth Andrews High School in Stone Mountain, left MLK last year after becoming frustrated with the school’s administrators. That meant leaving Peer Essence’s nearly 30 or so new recruits behind as well.

But what a legacy.

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It could be argued that Gill, Parham and the others would’ve gone on to graduate from college anyway, but they give a lot of the credit to Sapp, a former baseball coach and Navy man.

“It’s fulfilling to get to work with kids who are not yours and see them succeed,” Sapp said. “Once I got them to see they could have fun and take care of business, everything else fell into place. They stuck to their guns and made it their mission to complete what they started.”

For Indigo Gill, that meant maintaining her academic status but stepping up her leadership game.

“I’m not being cocky, but wherever I am, I will try to do whatever I can do to succeed on paper,” she said. “Coach Sapp helped support me in a different way. He was good at telling me I wasn’t doing enough. You got this going, but there’s still more to do. Keep up with personal connections. Say thank you. Acknowledge how someone helped you.”

As her graduation draws nigh, her parents, Coach Sapp and Peer Essence loom large in her memory.

Gill will take a year off to get a master’s in nutrition from Columbia University before heading to the University of Rochester Medical School. Then she intends to take a page out of Sapp’s book and do a little more: offer scholarships to minority women who aspire to go to college after her.

Find Gracie on Facebook ( and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at

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