This article was prepared by Eric Markinson, Principal at Dr. Wright L. Lassiter Early College HS. Interviews conducted by Kevin Ramos, class 2014.
This November, Dr. Wright L. Lassiter Jr. retired from his post as Chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District. One of his lasting legacies is his instrumental role in founding Middle College High School at El Centro College in 1988. The story goes that someone—Dr. Lassiter, or a counterpart from Dallas Independent School District, depending on who recounts the tale—read a blurb in a higher-ed journal regarding LaGuardia Community College’s successful partnership with MCHS, then already a decade old, and International High School. MCHS Dallas was one of MCNC’s early offspring —a testimony to the power of trumpeting the unique work that the Consortium accomplishes. Having transformed itself from re-connection program to magnet school to its current incarnation as an early college, the school now serves a diverse group of students who are attracted to its alternative-school beginnings. Students arrive embracing the school’s vision of every student receiving an associate’s degree, every student having the opportunity to complete a bachelor’s degree. 85% of the school’s students would be the first in their families to complete college.
Because that opportunity was so dear to Dr. Lassiter’s vision, the school community petitioned to name itself after its most ardent supporter. Last November 15, the MCHS Dallas community celebrated re-naming the school Dr. Wright L Lassiter Jr Early College High School at El Centro College. In preparation for the event, students interviewed Dr. Lassiter’s associates and some of the long-term allies of the program—Executive Dean Howard Finney, Dean of Students Felicitas Alfaro—and researched Dr. Lassiter’s writings. Students then interviewed Dr. Lassiter about his experience of the school and what moved him to support the Middle College ideal of college for all.
Kevin Ramos, Class of 2014: My first question is, Could you recall for us how the school was established?
Dr Lassiter: Well, I grew up in Mississippi, during the era of segregation; and I saw the challenges that persons of color—really, at that time, African Americans—faced. And I became convinced that wherever there was an occasion to provide an opportunity for students, that opportunity should be addressed. And so, I felt that this was something that I should do. As Paul Harvey used to say, “And you know the rest of the story.” It turned out to be a very good venture: Look at all of you [students].
Miguel Najera, Class of 2014: Dr. Lassiter, in one of your books you wrote, “Make an impact, not an impression.” As a major community service contributor, to United Way and the Urban League, what do you think has been your most significant contribution to the community?
Dr. Lassiter: Let me start by telling you how my service orientation came about. When I was a teenager, my father shared a thought with me. He said to me, “Junior, Service is the rent you pay for the space you occupy here on earth.” That became one of my fundamental values. I wanted to be of service. So, when I came to Dallas, there were a number of opportunities for service—United Way was one of them, Salvation Army, the African American Museum—all of those where you could contribute to the betterment of the larger society. That has just been the way I have conducted my life.
MN: What is a motto you try to live by?
Dr. Lassiter: “The largest room in any house is the room for improvement.” That is the message I convey to people like you, students—saying to you all that there are no boundaries to what you can achieve; there are no boundaries to that which you should acquire, to help you as you go along in life….So, that is what I would say to all of you as you go through life, as you get your high school diploma and associate’s degree: Don’t stop; keep going. I didn’t. I’m still in school, by the way. I recently…I decided that, although I have all these degrees, I wanted to get some deeper grounding in the spiritual area…. So, I am completing another doctoral degree…because the largest room in any house is the room for improvement.
KR: Do you have any advice for high school students who are uncertain about their future?
Dr. Lassiter: Someone asked me, “What have been your personal success factors,” and I wrote this: Hard work; determination; preparation; drive for success; and risk-taking. Let me tell you what happened to me when I finished college: I was the first person in my family to finish college. After I had walked across the stage of the chapel at Alcorn College, my family and I were smiling and getting ready to leave Alcorn and go back home to Vicksburg, when the head of the business department came to me and asked if I had a job for the summer. My father was a contractor, so I always had a job for the summer… “We would like for you to stay here and join the faculty.” Not two hours earlier, I had graduated with a baccalaureate degree. My response was, “If you have enough confidence in me to offer me the job, then I am enough of a risk-taker to say yes.”