Students pool around Corvonn Gaines as he greets them at West High School’s Van Hise entrance. It’s early morning, the last bell has yet to ring. Mr. Gaines is friendly and confident with the students, but he’s also there to run interference if needed. He knows the drill—it wasn’t that long ago that he was in a reverse role.
Mr. Gaines graduated with the West High School Class of 2008. In 2013, he graduated from East Carolina University where he played basketball, and then returned to his alma mater in 2015 to be head junior varsity coach and assistant varsity coach—the very spots that started his athletic career. This led to his current position as Student Engagement Coordinator, a role he stepped into after his mentor and high school varsity coach, Sean Gray, was promoted to Multicultural Student Coordinator.
His West High Regents Basketball shirt is a reminder of why these kids call him Coach Gaines. But his daily role is to work with teachers and principals to develop better systems to engage disenfranchised students, the ones who sometimes struggle to relate to teachers or school.
What sets Gaines apart from the kids he works with the most is that he hailed from a home life where both parents are UW-Madison graduates, so support was plentiful, and high achievement was an expectation with no option but to go to college.
What puts Gaines close to these kids is own high school friends who needed, when it wasn’t available, the kind of support that he was hired to provide.
“Those are the students we try to be patient with because of their trauma,” Mr. Gaines says. “But for me, everyday is a new day. I’m going to keep coming back with love and try to lift them up while still holding them accountable and having high expectations.”
Mr. Gaines has watched some of these students reverse course. One student in particular had the aptitude, and even the will, to perform in school, but his outside life was a distraction. Mr. Gaines introduced him to MMSD’s Capital High School, an Innovative and Alternative school with an individualized learning curriculum, a strong equity vision and a focus on advancing students to graduation through their own pathway. Mr. Gaines’ student applied, was accepted, and is now thriving.
“My job is to do whatever I can to empower students to be successful when they leave this building,” he says.
"From the time I was born, I was told you’re going to college. It was college, college, college! But when they’re told they’re not going to do anything, it takes a toll on them. That’s why when they come to me they’re not going to hear that. I’m going to reinforce that they’re here with positive people who are pushing them to be great and successful outside these walls. I try to plant seeds that good things are going to happen.”
– Pat Dillon