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Carson visits Detroit school that bears his name

Jim Lynch and Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Detroit — Few people know the legacy and story of Ben Carson the way those who attend the city high school that bears his name.

Two hours before the famous neurosurgeon officially announced his candidacy for president, he appeared at the 4-year-old school off Mack Avenue and found a receptive young audience.

Among them was 15-year-old sophomore David Whiteside, who said he was genuinely excited about the opportunity to see Carson in person.

"Of course," he said while students filed in to the assembly area. "We're about to meet the man our school is named after. That's always good. I've read his book and I've seen the movie."

Whiteside hopes to indulge his interest in engineering and alternative energy by moving on to college — possibly the University of Michigan. And the morning gathering was filled with plenty of young people with futures that seem similarly bright.

For many of them, Carson's life is the blueprint for what they hope to achieve. The surgeon held forth with stories and advice that hammered home the message of learning from mistakes.

His first set of comprehensive medical efforts produced poor results, as well as a recommendation from an adviser that he abandon his designs on medical school.

"People are always going to tell you what you can't do," Carson said. "But you don't have to accept that."

In its fourth year, the Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine will have its first graduating class this spring with 104 seniors expected at commencement. Carson will speak at the class' graduation ceremony.

"About 93 percent of the class of 2015 has been accepted to colleges or universities or will enlist in the military," Principal Brenda Belcher said Monday. "And there is no doubt we will hit a 100 percent acceptance rate."

The senior class has already received $2.2 million in scholarship support.

Student Camera Edgar spoke of her arrival two years ago as an "insecure incoming sophomore." She is now on her way to a career as a medical professional.

"In doing that, I proved to myself and my community that my circumstances are not my limitations," she said.

Ben Carson High School's curriculum focuses on the sciences and pre-medicine. The student body totals about 435. Many among the crowd Monday wore hospital scrubs — an indication of their participation in school programs that offer learning experiences at local hospitals.

It took transferring away from the school for CaJuan Treadway to realize what he had in Ben Carson High School. After realizing his love was science and medicine — not football — he returned to the school and is in the future osteopathic medicine program.

"Ben Carson High School prepared me to become the renaissance leader I am today," Treadway said.

Carson's hard work to overcome his own early learning hurdles provided a message of inspiration for students Monday. But he also offered some advice for their personal lives as well.

To the young women in the audience, he said: "It's a mistake to have babies while you're still young and out of wedlock. ... It's a mistake. You need to wait. You need to preserve yourself. Don't just give yourself away to some guy."

Carson said that, for many young mothers, having a child ends their education and stops them from being "people who could have gone on to great things academically."

To the young men, Carson delivered a similarly strong message about sex and responsibility.

"Guys, you need to respect the young women. Don't look at this stuff on television and say 'Oh, man, I'm gonna be cool' because, guess what? You're going to get a disease. And it's going to affect you for the rest of your life. So don't do it."

Dr. Reginald J. Eadie, president of the school's governing board, said he followed Carson's medical career when he was a boy. He had a lot in common with Carson as a young African-American and aspiring physician growing up in Detroit.

"He is proof that with commitment, dedication and tenacity, you can overcome the odds," said Eadie, now an emergency room physician and CEO of three Detroit Medical Center facilities — Harper University, Hutzel Women's and Detroit Receiving hospitals.

"He gave me the hope when any bit of doubt crept into my mind," Eadie added. "There are not a lot of Ben Carsons."

The school was named for Carson in part because Detroit Public Schools wanted to honor the legacy of one of its alumni. Carson graduated from Southwestern High School in 1969.

"The brand equity of a name like Ben Carson is huge. It has great value," Eadie said. "We reference Dr. Carson all the time. He's intertwined in the curriculum."

Carson has visited the school for a couple of other events, including a roundtable discussion with students about college, Principal Belcher said.

"Students ask him questions like, why is math so hard? He spends a lot of time actually answering the students' questions," she said. "He's such a giving man — just really inspirational. To hear him talk about the work he's done in the field as a pediatric neurosurgeon — that's fascinating."

The high school hosts one of the four Benjamin Carson Reading Rooms in Michigan — a refuge inside the school where students can escape for leisure reading in comfortable chairs.

The Carsons have sponsored 130 reading rooms across the country, including those at Memorial Elementary School in Garden City, Richfield Public School Academy in Flint and Urbandale Elementary School in Battle Creek.

jlynch@detroitnews.com