CINCINNATI -- For every hour of every shift over the past six years, Malcom Getter has done his best to serve customers at the Hyde Park Plaza McDonald's.
He has smiled and hustled and said please and thank you. His bosses saw his hard work and promoted him to manager in 2015, but Getter assumed nobody else really noticed. The promotion felt like the highest point he would ever reach.
Gary Favors saw something different. Favors is a regular at the Hyde Park McDonald's. He's also a U.S. Army veteran and a special education teacher at James N. Gamble Montessori High School.
"One of the things that struck me about Malcom was his work ethic," he said. "He would be valuable to any employer."
Chatting with Getter, Favors learned the young man had attended Woodward, where Favors taught for five years. He asked when Getter graduated and was surprised to hear that he hadn't.
Getter dropped out during his senior year after he failed the science portion of his Ohio Graduation Test by a handful of points. That was in 2012, the year before Favors started teaching at Woodward.
"I got discouraged, missing it by two points," now 24-year-old Getter said. "I guess I just quit."
That part of Getter's story is all too common. Ohio had one of the worst high school graduation rates for black males in the nation during the school year after Getter should have graduated, according to data from the Schott Foundation for Public Education.
Ohio ranked 43rd in the country, with fewer than 54 percent of black males graduating from high school in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males.
"A lot of black boys I work with give up totally," Favors said.
What set Getter apart, though, is that he didn't. Getter kept working at McDonald's week after week, month after month, year after year. Favors has been talking to Getter, urging him to get his high school credential so he can continue his education. Maybe Getter could own a fast food franchise someday, Favors said, or pursue his high school dream of going to college to study video game design.
Getter smiled just thinking about it. In a few short months, Favors has helped change the way Getter feels about himself. He even is planning to leave McDonald's and start a new job that will give him a more flexible schedule to pursue his education.
"I thought I wasn't doing that good for myself, but apparently I am," Getter said. "I start looking in the mirror and start being proud."
That feeling has been a long time coming.
Determined to get an education
Getter didn't have the easiest time growing up.
His parents were together when he was little, he said, but ended up going their own ways. His father has 10 kids; his mother has six. He grew up with five of his siblings, a mix of brothers and sisters.
He was a teenager when his older brother "got the house shot up," Getter said, adding, "I think he's a drug dealer."
When Getter was about 16, he walked more than eight miles from his home in Lincoln Heights to his grandma's house in Evanston and asked if he could live with her so he could keep going to high school.
Phyllis Austin said yes, of course. It wasn't until she drove her grandson home to get his things that she realized what he had done.
"It probably took an hour or two for him to walk," Austin said. "He was determined to get him some education."
Getter stayed in an upstairs bedroom in Austin's tidy Evanston home. She took him to church and pushed him to do well in school, where he stayed out of trouble and got mostly Bs and Cs on his report cards.
"I was on B honor roll once, and I was proud of that," Getter said. "Grandma was proud of me, too."
"I chewed his ear real good," Austin said. "I want him to be the best he can be."
Getter managed to stay away from the street life that ensnared other family members. He has two brothers -- one older, one younger -- doing time.
"Mommy and Daddy said I was the smart one," he said. "I just took that and ran with it."
He also learned from his brothers' mistakes, Austin said.
"Malcom wanted to avoid trouble, and he was good at avoiding trouble," she said. "I didn't ever worry about him."
Still, something about failing that test his senior year defeated Getter, he said.
"What stopped you inside?" Favors asked Getter during a recent meeting. "Fear?"
"A little bit of fear," Getter answered with a shrug. "Feeling like I can't do it. I guess I thought I would just work this job, save a little more money and then try to do it again. I was most definitely scared. I don't know scared of what, though."
Favors said he feels like Getter slipped through the cracks at Woodward.
Cincinnati Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Bill Myles said he couldn't talk about Getter's situation specifically because it would be inappropriate to talk about an individual student.
The importance of mentors
The district and its partners have been working hard over the past five years to boost graduation rates by giving students the individual attention they need to succeed, Myles said.
Schools now examine attendance data to figure out which students aren't going to school and why. They keep an eye out for discipline problems that get in the way of learning, and teachers and administrators work early in high school to figure out which academic areas are presenting problems for individual students, Myles said.
"For those students who might not be on track, we have companion classes, so they're getting the double dose of algebra, geometry or English," he said.
The district offers extra instruction in the summer, too. During the school year, CPS has programs before and after school to work with students who are having trouble, he said.
The Cincinnati Youth Collaborative also works to pair CPS students with mentors as early as second grade, said Jane Keller, the nonprofit organization's president and CEO.
"Having a mentor or coach is really important," Keller said. "The way that gets done is spending time understanding the students within the schools. It's us being a partner and teaming up and working closely with the schools to identify young people who would benefit from another caring adult in their life."
Even with all those efforts and more, though, the school district has room for improvement when it comes to graduation rates.
Cincinnati Public Schools had a four-year graduation rate of 72.8 percent for the class of 2016, according to its most recent state report card. That means 72.8 percent of the students who entered ninth grade in 2013 graduated by 2016. The report card data doesn't break out graduation rates for black males specifically.
The Ohio Graduation Test isn't part of the mix anymore. These days, students have different state-mandated graduation requirements they must meet. However, Myles said Getter still might be able to re-take the science portion of that test and get his diploma if he passes it.
That's what Favors hopes Getter can do.
Getting a GED -- or General Equivalency Diploma -- has gotten a lot more challenging in recent years. The test covers reams of material that Getter hasn't studied in years, Favors said.
Still, if Getter ends up having to get his GED instead, Favors said he's confident the young man can do it.
"Now you're 24, but it's still not too late," Favors told Getter. "As an educator, I'm sorry that we didn't do what we needed to do."
‘Life getting better'
Favors isn't the only educator who has taken an interest in Getter.
David Childs, a professor of social studies education and history in Northern Kentucky University's Department of Teacher Education, said he is ready to help, too.
Childs is a friend of Favors and senior pastor of First Antioch Baptist Church in Walnut Hills. His church has a ministry that works with inner-city youths, and he has offered to mentor Getter alongside Favors.
"Malcom represents the archetype of a lot of youth out there that have slipped through the cracks," Childs said. "What our society needs to understand is when our youth are failing, there's a trickle effect across the whole economy."
Too often society writes off people like Getter, Childs said -- young, black men who haven't had the education or support they needed.
"From an economic standpoint, we need to do something about youth that are disenfranchised," Childs said. "They're not criminals. They have aspirations."
Getter certainly does.
He is holding his head a bit higher these days, thinking about a future far different from his past. He wants to do what it takes to get his high school credential, either his diploma or GED, and then pursue more education.
Maybe he can finally study video game design, he said, or do something else involving technology. Getter has always liked math, he said, and he succeeded at McDonald's partly because he was able to see the patterns in the work around him.
"I think foresee my life getting better," Getter said. "It's about time to get my education. Better late than never."
Austin said she knows he can do it.
"He has a wonderful personality, and he's a standup guy," she said. "You don't catch him in a lie. He tries to be as truthful as possible, and he's a God-fearing man. I am looking forward to where this will lead him because he's ready for it now."
These mentors, she said, are just what Getter needs.
"Everybody has value," Childs said.
"I believe that Malcom has all the tools," Favors added. "He just needs support. He needs encouragement. He needs someone to help guide him and get a plan together."
Getter said he's ready.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address.
To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.