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The Voice of the Black Community
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Post Best Banquet
Top Seniors at 40:
Salute to excellence
 
Published Wednesday, April 30, 2014
by Herb White

James Cuthbertson started top senior program 40 years ago
Photo by Calvin Ferguson
Video interview by herb white ->

The Post’s Top Seniors program wouldn’t exist without James Cuthbertson. In 1975, Cuthbertson, then a Post reporter, asked a question: Why weren’t African American students acknowledged publicly for academic and extracurricular accomplishments? The answer was to create Top Seniors, an annual list of all-star scholars celebrating its 40th class in 2014.

“The (Charlotte) Observer had a display of the outstanding seniors in Mecklenburg County and they had them by schools,” Cuthbertson said. “If you were not (No.) 1 or 2 in your class, you probably wouldn’t make it and consequently they didn’t have a wide array of students.” With a goal in mind, Cuthbertson, a 1969 Olympic High School graduate, went about the task of convincing his boss, the late Bill Johnson, of its worth. A year into taking over as publisher, Johnson was looking to expand The Post’s brand. Top Seniors became an opportunity to highlight student achievement in the classroom and beyond.

“I talked to Bill Johnson, who was head of The Charlotte Post then and I kind of exposed upon him the idea that we need to honor black outstanding seniors because they were not being honored in the paper,” said Cuthbertson, reading language specialist and disabilities services coordinator at Johnson C. Smith University. “He agreed with it and we went with it.” Garinger High School graduate Dr. Jocelyn M. Pyles-Elo M.D., M.D. R.Ph., was in the first Top Seniors class – 10 students from eight Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools. That modest acknowledgement in The Post was a highlight of the academic year, the Houston, Texas physician and pharmacist remembered.

“I was just honored to be named in that first group,” she said. Social change was part of Top Seniors’ birth as well. The 1970s were a time of full-scale desegregation in CMS, which was considered a national model of peaceful transition. As black students at formerly all-white schools, the first Top Seniors thrived academically and socially – a benchmark that continues today. “We went through the desegregation era in Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system,” said Pyles-Elo, who earned an undergraduate degree from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., medical degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and pharmacy degree from Texas Southern University in Houston.

“I really gained a lot on insight in how to deal with people in general as a result of having gone through three middle schools (before) I ended up at Garinger.” Top Seniors has taken on a life of its own and spread its reach beyond the Class of ‘75. More than 300 seniors from public and private campuses are recognized in the 2014 Top Seniors yearbook and vie for college scholarships as the senior of the year and senior of the year runner-up. The public acknowledgement is its own reward, said Thea Scott of Philip O. Berry Academy of Technology, the 2014 Senior of the Year. “It’s really an exciting experience,” she said. “Even though I have accomplished a lot of things, I sometimes forget it’s a big accomplishment to succeed in school, so when I received this recognition, it kind of helps me realize all my hard work and all my effort paid off.” Top Seniors started small, with a single feature article in 1975. This year, 305 seniors – the most ever – will be profiled in a stand-alone glossy publication and the senior of the year and runner up each will be recognized at the Charlotte Post Best banquet in October.

“The format has changed somewhat,” Cuthbertson said. “It’s a lot different now as far as the way they are presented but the fact that they’re being presented and honored is an outstanding characteristic.” Top Seniors, now managed by The Charlotte Post Foundation, changed and grew as Mecklenburg County education evolved from an era of desegregation in the 1970s to the advance of black students as academic and community leaders. Many of Top Seniors’ senior of the year or runner up have been valedictorian of their high school classes and later enrolled at some of America’s finest colleges and universities.

“In the times Charlotte has changed and the schools have been integrated, we’ve had several Top Seniors who have been No. 1 come through,” Cuthbertson said. The program has come a long way in scope and tone, and Cuthbertson’s proud of its growth. For an idea that started as a way to honor high school students for making the grade, Top Seniors has had a remarkably long and successful run. “I really didn’t know how long it would last,” Cuthbertson said. “I was willing to take it year by year in honoring these outstanding students. Then we got into 20 and 25 (years) and I’m glad it still exists.” Top Seniors past and present concur. “It helped me realize that I’m doing the right thing and I should continue to work as hard and my efforts are being recognized,” Scott said. “It really is an enjoyable experience and I really do enjoy the recognition.” Said Pyles-Elo: “It was like icing on the cake for me at the time. I agree with (Scott) totally.”

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