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Perspective | The Paisley 7: How Wake Forest University athletes brought new life to a middle school literacy program

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Over the past decade, I have written extensively about the impact of sports on secondary education settings. In the academic setting, I believe sports can provide opportunities for students to discuss, define, and interrogate the power and privilege of athletics in K-12 schools.

I teach about the connection of academics and athletics in an introductory course at Wake Forest University. My thematic section of “EDU 101: Issues and Trends in Education” highlights the intersection of literacy, sport, education, and society while examining the impact of sports culture on schools and communities.

Yet the excitement of talking about sports and schools in the university setting pales in comparison to the experiential learning that takes place beyond the walls of Tribble Hall. For me, that distinction is reserved for a middle school just down University Parkway where I’ve spent years running a sports literacy program with Wake Forest student-athletes, an opportunity that was lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and only resurfaced on March 31, 2021, with an email from Caelen Carson.

Caelen was a former student in EDU 101. Originally from Waldorf, M.D., Caelen majored in Communication and played cornerback on the Wake Forest football team. When he first came to Wake Forest, he seemed confident in himself as an athlete but uncertain of himself as a student. Yet, his eyes would light up when he heard me talk about the Paisley Sports Literacy Program because, as he wrote in a letter to Paisley students, “I want to be a helping hand to the youth that I never had… because it’s so easy to make bad decisions when you’re in the process of growing up.”

Caelen wore No. 1 on the football field, so it was fitting that he would be the first of a group of remarkable young men I call the “Paisley 7” — a cohort of student-athletes who committed themselves to serving a select group of the school’s seventh and eighth grade students. And it all started with an email that read simply, “Hello Mr. Brown, I was wondering if I could help out in your mentoring program. It doesn’t have to be right now, but I’ll help out as soon as possible. Thank you, Caelen.”

Paisley Sports Literacy Program

Four primary goals guide the Paisley Sports Literacy Program:

  1. Support youth through academic, social, and community engagement.
  2. Empower students who are interested in sports to read and write for enjoyment.
  3. Explore social issues that affect the lives of adolescents and young adults through culturally-relevant literature.
  4. Improve literacy skills and practices that support learning across content areas and promote college and career readiness.

Mentors in the Paisley Sports Literacy Program play a small but important role in enhancing the work of the school’s faculty, staff, and administrators. Over the years, the focus of the group has been primarily on supporting boys with an interest in sports because school data, historical precedent, and anecdotal evidence suggest that young men — particularly young men of color — may feel disconnected from the scholastic and literacy practices necessary for future academic success.

The Paisley Sports Literacy Program has a shared history that includes former Wake Forest student-athletes Wendell Dunn, Michael Allen, Kyle McKenzie, Gerald Davis, Jr., Jaquarii Roberson, Tony Jones, and Evan Simmons. I have been fortunate that past and present school and university leaders, such as Bailey Allman, Donovan Livingston, and Nichole Page, have shared in the program’s vision as well. The program continued to build momentum until the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, at which time I feared its days were numbered. That is, until Caelen Carson came calling.

Student-athletes turned mentors

Caelen believed he and his teammates could make a difference in helping students to succeed in school and overcome any adversity in their own lives. I asked him to recruit one or two peers for the task of mentoring a group of middle school boys, many of whom lived in the Boston Thurmond community that sits adjacent to the stadium where Wake Forest plays its home football games. Caelen offered two names: Jahmal Banks and DaShawn Jones.

I already knew Jahmal Banks — a Communication major with a minor in Schools, Education, and Society and wide receiver on the football team who grew up in Washington, D.C. — as a former student in “EDU 231: Adolescent Literature.” Jahmal was passionate about making sure our middle schoolers learned to treat all people, but especially women, with respect. He would become the group’s vocal leader, sharing words of wisdom during weekly meetings, giving pep talks before middle school basketball games, and having informal conversations between classes during the school day.

Caelen talked about DaShawn Jones, his roommate, as a quiet leader, hard worker, and someone with tremendous integrity. A Communication major and cornerback on the football team from Baltimore, M.D., DaShawn told me he was excited about mentoring, whether on the topics of school, sports, or life in general. DaShawn was a consistent presence and would be the one off to the side having quiet conversations with students who didn’t feel as comfortable fitting in or were having a bad day. While his role may have seemed less glamorous, it was no less significant.

With Caelen, Jahmal, and DaShawn in tow, I invited Quincy Bryant, a Business and Enterprise Management major, Entrepreneurship minor, and linebacker on the football team to round out the group. Originally from Atlanta, G.A., Quincy expressed an interest in education and history. He signed up for my “EDU 309L: Introduction to Secondary Education” course and spent a semester observing teaching and learning at R.J. Reynolds High School. After that experience, Quincy was excited to visit Paisley and would become the steadying force that kept the program moving forward.

These four young men committed for a single semester in the fall of 2022. We spent an afternoon each week at Paisley Magnet School, planning and reflecting before and after each meeting, and by the end of the semester — without me even asking — they vowed to return for the spring.

Caelen, Jahmal, DaShawn, and Quincy adored their time at Paisley that year. Excited by the energy in the school, all four decided to return in the fall of 2023. Only this time, they weren’t alone.

Ke’Shawn Williams, a Communication major, Entrepreneurship minor, and wide receiver from Philadelphia, P.A., emailed in April. I could tell from the start that Ke’Shawn took pride in being a serious student and dedicated athlete. He said his fondest memories growing up were spending time with his siblings. The Paisley Sports Literacy Program allowed him to build relationships much like the one he has with his younger brother and to share an important message that hard work could help students achieve their goals.

Jaylen Hudson came next. A graduate student in Digital Marketing and a defensive end on the football team, Jaylen is originally from Fayetteville, N.C., and grew up in a military family where the value of education and sports was instilled in him by his mother and father. During his career at Wake Forest, Jaylen took my summer course on community engagement and interned with Wake Forest’s Freedom School, a free 6-week summer reading loss prevention program for children in grades K-6. Jaylen found his calling as he read and discussed books and poetry with elementary school students. That opportunity led to his participation in the Paisley Sports Literacy Program, a position in our Education Library, and an internship with the Skip Prosser Literacy Program, a longstanding collaboration between Wake Forest Athletics and the Department of Education that aims to grow a community of readers in Winston-Salem.

Isaiah Chaney was the final piece of the puzzle. An Elementary Education major, Communication minor, and defensive end from Cartersville, G.A., Isaiah completed his major requirements the previous semester and was looking for opportunities to stay involved in education while finishing his degree. Before our first trip to Paisley in early September, Isaiah showed up at the van unexpectedly and requested to ride along. A personable young man with varied interests (e.g., working on cars, cutting hair, fishing), Isaiah cared about giving back to the community and building relationships with the middle school students so they would know there was more to life than sports.

A lasting legacy

These seven young men were remarkable, not only for their willingness to serve but also for their commitment to the students at Paisley Magnet School and, in many ways, the broader Winston-Salem community. To the Paisley students, they gave the gift of their time and attention, which is no small feat for Division I athletes. To the community, they broke down barriers that often exist in the bubble of higher education and made it their mission to serve others in a manner that was meaningful to them.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. For the Paisley 7 specifically, the end came in December 2023, though the program will carry on in some capacity just as it always has.

Some of the Paisley 7 have recently graduated from Wake Forest and are moving on with their lives, pursuing jobs or graduate degrees at other institutions. One has declared for the NFL draft.

Quincy Bryant and DaShawn Jones will continue visiting Paisley Magnet School, albeit on Wednesday mornings given their academic and athletic schedules. They will be joined by fellow student-athletes Demond Claiborne, Horatio Fields, and Jamare Glasker, young men who regularly visit local elementary schools and read to students as part of the Skip Prosser Literacy Program.

These Wake Forest student-athletes are the types of role models, and human beings, we need in our schools. They come with their own histories and complexities. Some have overcome more in their lives than I can ever begin to comprehend.

These are young Black men who are committed to literacy, education, and mentoring. The Paisley 7 may be best known nationally for their role as athletes, but to many here in Winston-Salem, they will be remembered as public servants who gave of themselves not out of any sense of obligation but because they believed in the power of representation in schools and were opposed to the anti-intellectual projections that young Black men commonly face in school and sports.

As they have shared with me, most can count on one hand how many Black male teachers and librarians they have had in their lifetimes. Even if the field of education is not in their professional futures, they still have a role to play as mentors.

And our schools need them.

The Paisley 7 are now a part of our program’s shared history. The middle school students they mentored will look back and remember them fondly even if they never meet again. It is that way with our best teachers and coaches — when they show how much they care, their impact can be immeasurable.

Every student in every school in every city should be so lucky. As should every university.

Dr. Alan Brown is Associate Professor of English Education and Chair of the Department of Education at Wake Forest University. He is the inaugural director for the Wake Forest Center for Literacy Education and co-PI for Winston-Salem TEACH, a five-year, $4.7 million U.S. Department of Education Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP) grant, a collaboration among Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem State University, Salem College, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.