D.C.’s Banneker High produces two Gates Millennium Scholars


Avery Coffey, left, is headed to Harvard, and Jide Omekam is going to Brown. Both are seniors at the District’s Banneker High. (Emma Brown)

D.C. high school senior Avery Coffey set the Internet abuzz earlier this spring when he was accepted to five Ivy League universities, proving that a child’s circumstances — Coffey was raised by a single mother in one of the District’s poorest neighborhoods — don’t have to determine his future.

A few weeks later, Coffey received more good news: He was the recipient of the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship, which not only covers the cost of college but also helps pay for graduate school, up to and including a doctorate.

Coffey is headed to Harvard University. A student at the District’s selective Benjamin Banneker Academic High, he is not alone. Fellow Banneker student Jide Omekam was also named a Gates Millennium Scholar, making Banneker one of a select number of U.S. high schools that has produced more than one Gates scholar in the same year.

“It took me a while to realize, ‘Okay, I’m going to get my PhD,’ ” said Omekam, 18, who is headed to Brown University in the fall to study economics and computer science. “I might be the next Steve Jobs,” he said.

Banneker is an application-only high school that is known for strict rules and high expectations and that has a reputation for helping driven students reach their goals. Not everyone who starts at Banneker in ninth grade sticks with it for four years, but of those who do, all are accepted to college.

Coffey and Omekam speak highly of their school, and it’s clear that their teachers and counselors have played a key role in helping them get where they’re now going.

Omekam, for example, had never heard of the Ivy League until a Banneker orientation before ninth grade; when he heard about it, he made it his goal to get there. And the school’s menu of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses has given both students the kind of challenges they need to better prepare them for college work.

But ask these young men why it is that they have managed to overcome the odds — only 38 percent of black males graduate from high school on time in the District — and the first thing they mention? Family.

“I’m the first-born, the first to go to college. There’s no room for failure. If I fail, it may cascade down to my siblings,” Omekam said.

“My mother, she’s always preached the value of education,” said Coffey, who said his mom had him practicing multiplication and division before he entered kindergarten, and who aims to be the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company someday.

Coffey said his mother taught him that there is a connection between working through even the most tedious tasks — doing tonight’s homework, studying for tomorrow’s test — and realizing big dreams. “I think that separated me from a lot of other people growing up. I didn’t want to take the easy way out,” he said.

Coffey said he’s thrilled at the prospect of being surrounded by smart and motivated students. Omekam said he’s a little nervous about next year, about “not being the big fish in a little pond anymore.”

Both said they’re proud of the Banneker Class of 2014, which together pulled in nearly $30 million in scholarship funds and is sending students to schools as varied as Duke University, Columbia University and Pomona College. “It’s a matter of how hard someone wants to work,” Coffey said. “We’re always hungry.”

The Gates Millennium Scholarship was originally funded with a $1 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Since 1999, it has paid for more than 16,000 students to go to college. Besides Coffey and Omekam, two other D.C. students received the scholarship this year: Meheret Mekonnen of the School Without Walls, another selective public school, and Stewart Gray of the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter school.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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