Marquese McFerguson grew up in the 1990s in Wrightsville, a tiny community in southeast Pulaski County best known for its prison. Though his family struggled financially, he had a happy childhood — and then, in 8th grade, his father died of colon cancer and his life began to go off the rails. His mother had to pick up a second job to support the family, which left McFerguson alone with his grief most evenings. By the time a school counselor nominated him to participate in a Little Rock afterschool and summer program called Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids, or P.A.R.K., his GPA had slid to a 1.67.
"I was accepted, and it just really changed my life," he recalled a few weeks ago. "I have three friends that, when we graduated high school, they got sent to prison. If I hadn't gone to P.A.R.K., I probably would've been with them. And I wasn't necessarily the bad kid — my mom raised me to be a man of character, but I hung around with a lot of people who were doing not-so-good stuff. ... So my environment kind of led me in that direction."
P.A.R.K. was founded in 1993 by NFL star and Arkansas native Keith Jackson. It today serves nearly 250 students from Little Rock and Pulaski County public schools, 85 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Its target demographic is kids like McFerguson, who are in danger of slipping through the cracks but still have a toehold on solid ground. Unlike some afterschool programs which welcome all comers, P.A.R.K. is somewhat selective. Students must be nominated by a teacher or counselor, pass an initial interview and have a GPA of between 1.5 and 2.5.
But once a kid is in, he or she's in for good: P.A.R.K. makes a five-year commitment to ensure its 8th graders have the tools they need to complete high school and go on to college. That means at least an hour of tutoring and study four days a week, followed by evening recreation time. Thanks to a grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the organization is housed in a sparkling new facility in Southwest Little Rock that includes a cafeteria, a gym, a library, and a rec room, all built around a massive tutoring center.
Although academics are the cornerstone of P.A.R.K., it's at least as important that junior high students have access to mentorship and guidance, explained the organization's program director, Jason Lanier.
"In 8th grade, you've had some life in you, and you're about to enter high school," Lanier said. "Those are very dangerous, valuable years. Every kid has a case manager whose job is to make sure that kid goes to school and keeps up. We try to fill in those holes and not give them excuses."
McFerguson said the impact of being surrounded by adults who had been to college and graduate school — many of whom were African-American, like himself — can't be overstated.
"For a lot of students coming from poverty, it's more than just a financial thing. It's a psychological thing, because we mimic the behaviors we see on a regular basis. If you've never seen anyone in your family graduate from high school or go to college, that's an obstacle you're going to have to overcome, a mental hurdle to even believe that you can do it — because you've never seen anyone do it."
During his years at P.A.R.K., he recalled, the idea of college gradually changed from something abstract and distant into something attainable. He especially remembers the impact of meeting young adults who were working towards a higher degree.
"I remember back then there were three Mr. McMurrys, all cousins — one ended up being a doctor, one a pharmacist, and one a biologist. It was extraordinary! I'd never met a biologist before. ... They're educated, and they're telling us about life — things I should do, or shouldn't do. They're taking us on college trips. I'll never forget, one of the first college trips I ever went on was to UNC Chapel Hill.
"Once you expose a child to something like that, it's hard for them not to want to go to college ... it's like the perfect storm for success," he said. "You keep telling children they can succeed, and somewhere along the route they'll start believing it."
McFerguson recalls getting suspended once, in 9th grade, and how keenly he felt the disappointment from his mentors. "But there was the also the second part of the message, which is, 'I still love you and believe in you,' " he continued. "I think a lot of times, those students who are suspended on a regular basis don't hear that."
His grades never again fell below a 3.0. He graduated high school in 2001, becoming the first person in his family to do so; four and a half years later McFerguson graduated from Ouachita Baptist University with a degree in studio art, and in 2010 he received his master's degree in communications from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Now, he's a career coach at Central High School and is applying for PhD programs.
Would any of that have happened without P.A.R.K.? He laughed at the question. "No way. That's a no-brainer."
McFerguson stops by P.A.R.K. two or three times a week to work with students, keep an eye on kids he knows from Central talk to his former mentors.
"I've had a lot of support. Almost everything I've experienced in life, I met someone else here who experienced it too," he said. "It feels good to see somebody who's said, 'I've been through what you've been through and I made it.'"
P.A.R.K. accepts nominations for participating students in 7th and 8th grade, and provides academic support and mentorship throughout their high school years. It serves about 250 students currently, and has graduated some 375 kids, the majority of whom are now in college. P.A.R.K. is a Christian-affiliated organization.
In addition to a full-time staff, P.A.R.K. relies on volunteers for tutoring and other services, especially in core subjects such as math and English language arts. With the help of founder Keith Jackson, the nonprofit is building an endowment to secure its future; the organization is currently seeking additional funders to reach its $10 million goal. To donate or volunteer, contact P.A.R.K. online at positivekids.org or call 562-5223. P.A.R.K.'s facilities are located at 6915 Geyer Springs Road in Little Rock.