A once homeless Los Angeles boy prepares for college

Kriss'Shawn Day, right, stands with a classmate at his graduation from Morningside High School.
Kriss'Shawn Day, right, stands with a classmate at his graduation from Morningside High School.
Daniel Castillo

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Some kids consider college the ultimate escape — a legitimate way to break free from the watchful eyes of parents and the nudging of teachers. By the time high school graduation rolls around, they can hardly wait to savor the taste of full-fledged freedom. That is so not the case for Kriss’Shawn Day.

He’s 18 years old with big brown eyes and faint dimples — one on each side of a bright white, if somewhat crooked, smile. His compact, lean frame offers evidence of a high school career in sports — three years running track and playing varsity football. He's poised around adults and he turns heads among his peers

But unlike other newly graduated seniors desperate to cut loose from their “helicopter parents” in the rearview mirror, Day has had enough of running wild.

Just a week before commencement, Day talks about his past in a flat monotone. “I was like an adrenaline junkie, so I did stuff for adrenaline,” he said. “The boys I used to hang out with, we would just go and pick a random fight with you for no reason, or just go and rob you.”

Sometimes they would break into stores and steal anything they could grab. There were several altercations that culminated with Day being at the deadly end of a gun.

All of that, he said, was before the eigth grade, when Day was between 11 and 14 years old.

Added to the juvenile delinquency were physical abuse and spells of homelessness. He, his mother and his two brothers lived in a single motel room when he started high school. Clothes came from the Goodwill, food from a church pantry. Day’s educational trajectory wasn’t part of the conversation.

“My life wasn’t easy," Day said. "I had a lot of struggles back then, and looking back, it was sad. And I felt like that life… that life wasn’t right for me.”

After coasting for the first two years at Morningside High School in Inglewood, Day realized he'd better figure out what kind of life would be right for him.

So on the first day of junior year, Day walked into Morningside High's Black Male Youth Academy — a hybrid of extra coursework and extracurricular activities that meets four days a week for about an hour. It's open to 30 boys at every grade level. It's the first place anyone suggested to Day that college might be part of his future.

Until then, Day admits, he’d been slacking. Getting a C was good enough, but now, he said, “a C is like an F.”

D’Artagnan Skorza founded the Black Male Youth Academy and is a mentor to Day and his classmates, who all credit Skorza with helping turn their lives around. He’s witnessed the transformation of Day from an apathetic student to one whose primary drive was to get into college.

“He went from having this attitude of 'It’s not going to matter. It doesn’t matter what we do. We’re going to need a lot of people to actually do anything,' to actually becoming a leader in the program,” Skorza said.

Day’s initial motive for joining the Academy was a little less than admirable. The boys in the program often travel to conferences, to tell other groups how it works and share their experiences. Day thought that'd be great way to miss school. But now, he’s one of the program’s best public speakers and a prime example of the academy’s mission: to reverse a national trend of African-American males dropping out of high school and college.

Here’s what that trend looks like: in 2009, the most recent year tracked, only 46 percent of black male students graduated from L.A. County high schools. Across the country, only 4 percent went on to college. Kriss’Shawn Day will be one of them.

Day applied to 13 schools and got into 12. He's headed to Cal State Chico this fall, with a slew of scholarships to help him pay for the political science degree he hopes to earn. Poised to become the first in his family to attend college, Day admits that he’s worried about his prospects of success.

“But that’s why I have a good support system. Outside and inside of school," Day said. He said he knows that if and when he needs guidance there are people around him to ask for help.

It’s obvious this is a practiced script. Over and over, others have drilled him on the mantra that he cannot make it alone — and as it turns out, more than a dozen of his Morningside High classmates will also go to Chico State this fall. That, experts say, will help propel him toward a college degree.

Michael Holzman has tracked eight years of black graduation stats for the Schott Foundation. Holzman said students like Day, who go to college from poorly-performing inner-city schools, usually get tripped up in college by the difficulty of the coursework.

“The kinds of high schools that are available to black kids are not very good, often enough," Holzman said. "And so they get to college and the coursework itself is a problem.”

He said it's the students who set up a support network almost as quickly as they decorate their dorm rooms with Lil Wayne posters that are most likely to cross the finish line.

So, while most of the college class of 2016 fantasizes about the parties they’ll hit and the courses that’ll let them sleep latest this fall, Day is plotting strategies to stay in the school 472 miles north of Los Angeles.

He heard that Chico State is considered a “party school,” but he said he’s staying clear of those. He estimates he’ll only go to one or two parties throughout his freshman year. “Partying, almost every day, it’s not for me,” he said while shaking his head. “'Cause if I get kicked out of school, I’m going to be stuck in Chico with no way back to L.A. And that would be sad.”

And this kid is done with sad.