James Thompson knows his South Memphis neighborhood is riddled with drug use and other illegal activities, but that hasn’t stopped him from making sure his family remains safe.
He attributes some of his success to the after-school program Knowledge Quest, which is a free non-profit program that acts as a safe haven for more than 300 children who live in zip codes 38126 and 38106, one of Memphis’ most dangerous neighborhoods.
Knowledge Quest organizers know that getting students off the street means they have less time to get in trouble. Nearly one-third of all violent crime committed by juvenile offenders occurs between 3 and 7 p.m. By comparison, 26 percent of all violence committed by adult offenders occurs between 8 p.m. and midnight.
“It’s a very negative environment,” Thompson said. “But with this system in place, I think it’ll help the kids get good positive information and take it back to their households.”
Photos by Daisha Dear
Thompson’s family lives about a 10-minute walk from Knowledge Quest. Both he and his wife, Tenicia, are full-time students at Lemoyne-Owen College. The couple is also raising five children.
“It gives us access for them to have a safe place to be while we’re working, or, we have a class that runs late into the evening,” Thompson said.
His sons James and Jermaine said students learn skills at Knowledge Quest that can be used in and outside the classroom.
For instance, Jermaine, who is in the seventh grade, competed in a robotics competition through the science, technology, engineering and math program, more commonly known as STEM.
He smiled when telling the story.
“I won,” Jermaine said.
A couple of days ago, we had this one teacher who sat us down, and she talked to us about our rights and being approached by the police. —James Thompson
Knowledge Quest uses more real world situations to teach students than a standard school curriculum.
“They talk to the boys about protecting yourself as a young man, and they talk to the ladies about protecting themselves as young women,” Jermaine said.
“A couple of days ago, we had this one teacher who sat us down and she talked to us about our rights and being approached by the police.”
James, who is in eighth grade, can see the difference Knowledge Quest makes.
“My friends at school who don’t go to Knowledge Quest, don’t really get that much experience,” he said. “They act up more at school.”
James’ sister, Jernicya, a ninth-grader at Central High School, volunteers at the program. She is active in dance and performed with Ballet Memphis at the Orpheum Theatre in April.
Marlin Foster, the founder of Knowledge Quest, started the program in 1998 after his high school friend was gun downed and killed. He saw a cycle of violence and wanted to help break it.
“My children make the fourth generation of us living in South Memphis,” Foster said.
Infographic by Josh Tucker
He also said the neighborhood is ranked number one for all the wrong reasons. National statistics show that the area surrounding Knowledge Quest has over four times the amount of violent and drug related crimes per square mile than the national average.
Foster said the best way to alleviate crime is to start with the future.
“Children are the greatest asset among people if you’re going to build the community,” Foster said. “The highest value has to be on the children.”
Foster regularly checks report cards of Knowledge Quest participants and said consistent attendance and good conduct in the classroom help to improve grades.
“We’re not the mom and dad, we’re not the schools, but we think that out-of-school-time efforts have a unique place and support in those two institutions,” Foster said.
As the program continues to grow, Foster hopes to help chisel away at some of the problems facing schools in Memphis.
“Sixty seven percent of Shelby County third-graders are not reading on their grade level,” Foster said. “That’s an epidemic. We have to help.”