In the sadness, nothing else seemed significant.
Especially not high school.
How could it be? Her loved ones were being shot at and dying. Her mother was depressed and out of work. Her younger brother was ill and on the cusp of running away.
And amid it all, Nazje Mansfield was left questioning the meaning of math homework when pitted against mortality.
"What is the purpose of continuing life if everyone dies?" she questioned.
But there is a point. She realizes that now, she says, thanks to some important high school mentors and a local program called Jobs for Tennessee Graduates, which helps at-risk students graduate and find opportunity after high school.
“It made me realize that the sun will always shine after the rain,” she says, sitting in a coffee shop across from Belmont University, where she is now a freshman. “So you can’t just dwell on the past and live your life worrying about the what ifs. … Every day is a day, so just cherish it.”
That wasn’t easy to say a year ago, when Mansfield nearly dropped out of Stratford High Schoolin the middle of her senior year.
She lived with her mom and five siblings in the gun- and drug-ridden North Nashville public housing complex known as “Dodge City,” where she worked to balance homework with her afternoon co-op job and chaotic home life.
She caught the bus at 5:50 every morning, attending half a day of classes at Stratford before heading to work at White Castle on Broadway. She made $7.35 an hour, and each week’s paycheck went to help her mom pay the rent and save for a car. She also brought Christmas to her family.
It was winter when harder times hit. Her ex-boyfriend died. Her cousin was shot. And her then-11-year-old brother ran away from home. He got on a bus that he thought was headed toward family in Indiana. Instead, he ended up in Atlanta.
Mansfield skipped school for two weeks while he was gone and seriously contemplated quitting. "She could have easily been a statistic," Stratford Principal Michael Steele says. But an unexpected support network emerged — her Jobs for Tennessee Graduates mentor.
Since the beginning of her senior year, she had been building a relationship with the leader of her capstone class, Eric Polk. And when she walked into his room during first period, she left the other turmoil outside.
Polk liked to start class with brain buster activities, throwing out riddles like “What gets wetter as it dries?” (“A towel,” Mansfield says with a smile.) Then came the more practical part of the class, lessons about how to fill out a tax return or start a savings account.
The students learned how create a resume and interview for a job. Although Mansfield already worked at White Castle, she remembers Polk helping one of her classmates, driving the student to Opry Mills mall to fill out applications and get a job.
He told them about his own college experiences, and often touted the idea that there isn’t just one path to success — if Plan A doesn’t work, there’s Plan B.
He showed these students — all students selected for the Jobs for Tennessee Graduates program because of the home-life barriers they faced — how to proceed beyond circumstance.
“I feel like he was teaching life skills,” Mansfield says. “He wasn’t teaching lessons; he was dropping nuggets of knowledge. And I caught them.”
Encouraged by Polk’s real-life instruction and the support he offered when home life became hard, Mansfield didn’t drop out. Instead, she applied for a Bridges to Belmont scholarship.
The opportunity was made possible by a $10 million scholarship endowment from HCA CEO Milton Johnsonand his wife. As a Stratford and Belmont graduate, Johnson funded full scholarships for inner-city students who might not have the opportunity to attend the university otherwise. He also has emerged as a major corporate supporter of Jobs for Tennessee Graduates, with HCA giving $200,000 to the program over the past two years.
Mansfield earned one of those scholarships. She graduated as valedictorian of her class. And after her 18th birthday, when her mom moved away and she faced homelessness, she received support from the university, moving on to campus before summer classes began.
"What else could you want for someone who has had to struggle that much," Steele asks. "These kids have an avenue to really learn how to navigate in this world."
Now, the Belmont freshman slips the straps of her backpack over a hoodie and happily heads to an 8 a.m. math class.
“She sees success,” Steele says.
She has a purpose.
Reach Jessica Bliss at 615-259-8253 and on Twitter @jlbliss.
About Jobs for Tennessee Graduates
Jobs for Tennessee Graduates serves 18 high schools in 14 counties. In 2015, JTG schools achieved a 98 percent graduation rate.
The program has a longstanding history in the state, brought here in 1981 by then-Gov. Lamar Alexander to help curb Tennessee’s dropout rate. But, for a time, its future was uncertain. Just as state officials are doing now with a weeklong series of hearings to determine Tennessee's funding priorities for the 2016-17 fiscal year, the state had to evaluate its financial priorities.
In 2013, government officials cut financial support of the program, which the Department of Education supported financially for more than two decades, including allocating $431,750 during the 2012-13 academic year.
Despite that, 24 schools — including Stratford — elected to keep the program and find other funding sources, setting in motion the program’s reboot as a nonprofit. For the past year, Jobs for Tennessee Graduates’ new executive director, John Dwyer, has worked to recruit a high-powered board of directors that now includes House Speaker Beth Harwell, AT&T President of Tennessee Joelle Phillips, former NFL star Eddie Georgeand John Steele, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at HCA.
New funding sources stepped up support, including HCA, which is run by Stratford and Belmont graduate Milton Johnson. The company donated $100,000 for both 2014-15 and this school year. With guidance from the Tennessee Department of Education, Jobs for Tennessee Graduates also revised its standards. In October, the Tennessee Board of Education approved the program as a one-credit course elective for high school seniors, paving the program’s future.
This week, Jobs for Tennessee Graduates launched a fundraising campaign, 100k in 100 Days, to secure support for the upcoming school years.
Now fully transitioned to a nonprofit, Jobs for Tennessee Graduates serves 1,062 students. A total of 541 students at 18 high schools were in the program in 2014-15 with a 98 percent graduation rate. All remain in the program for a 12-month follow-up.