Merlene Davis: Ex-truant set to be first black male to earn EKU doctorate

Scott Ferguson tutored Anthony Cox, 13, at the Carnegie Center on Thursday. Ferguson is defending his dissertation this week at EKU. He’s likely to be the first black man to earn a doctorate there.
Scott Ferguson tutored Anthony Cox, 13, at the Carnegie Center on Thursday. Ferguson is defending his dissertation this week at EKU. He’s likely to be the first black man to earn a doctorate there. Herald-Leader

I first met Scott Tyrone Ferguson in 2002 when my older son played basketball at Bryan Station High School.

Ferguson was the assistant coach, and his assignment was to be barbed wire. You can’t slide on barbed wire, my grandmother often said, and none of the athletes were about to slide on their grades or their behavior while that ex-soldier was around.

My husband and I were relieved to meet him.

We had run interference for our son, who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but we knew the older he got, the less he would listen to us.

We knew “Coach Ferg” and other assistant coaches would serve as a good stand-in for us whenever they were near our son. And they did.

What I didn’t know, however, and should have, is Ferguson’s heartfelt empathy and compassion for troubled youth at the Fayette County Regional Juvenile Detention Center, where he teaches math. Nor did I know that in addition to that mission, he had an unspoken desire to achieve as much as he could in the field of education, just so the youth around him would know it could be done.

Later this week, Ferguson will be defending his dissertation in the Doctor of Education program in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, and, if successful, will be awarded a Doctor of Education degree in December.

At that point, he will become the first black man to receive a doctorate degree at EKU.

Not bad for a former public school student who was as gifted in skipping classes as he was in mathematics.

“I always loved school, but I found reasons to take vacations,” said Ferguson, 50, who was born in Clark County and moved to Lexington with his family when he was around 9 years old.

Those “vacations” started in middle school, where he had become bored with the lack of a challenging curriculum. In seventh grade, he spent a semester at the back of the class, where he was told to sit and not bother anyone.

“The only reason I would go back to school was because my mom was threatened with court,” he said.

In high school he enjoyed the advanced math classes, but struggled with writing.

“I would give you two or three sentences, and I’m done,” he said.

Still he graduated but had no ambitions to go any further. Instead, he became a loan shark at ages 19 and 20.

While he never smoked, took drugs or even drank alcohol, Ferguson said he was a delinquent.

“It was wrong to loan money for interest rates higher than what the government allows,” he said.

So he headed for an Army recruitment center and enlisted.

He asked to work in the supplies area, but because of his test scores, he was urged to concentrate on dental hygiene and forensic sciences. He was sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas.

He spent 22 years in the Army before retiring in 2007, and all along the way, people were telling him to go to college. When he was transferred near Lexington, he started taking community college classes and later moved to EKU.

With the urging of others, he earned master’s degrees in both public administration and education. And now he may soon have a doctorate, even though he had contemplated dropping out after his mother died in 2011.

For his dissertation, Ferguson examined the connection between effective teachers and better classroom management and positive student behavior. Specifically, he looked at those, like himself, who teach in juvenile detention centers and youth development centers in Kentucky.

Effective teachers believe they can teach any student, he said. By contrast, ineffective teachers are of little benefit to students and may encourage negative behavior in classrooms.

He thinks that is what happened in his youth. With a more challenging curriculum, direction and teachers, he may not have traveled the circuitous route to his doctorate.

Be that as it may, Ferguson wants other young people to avoid his missteps. Some of those missteps can lead those young people to prison. Studies have suggested there are more black men in prison than attending college. While those have been refuted by Howard University professor Ivory A. Toldson, that experience is all too often the one shown in the media.

Ferguson is one of those black students we hear too little about. And he’s doing his best to make more success stories by redirecting kids, just as adults tried to redirect him.

“When I was a young guy, Jack Givens was my big brother in the Big Brothers/ Big Sisters program,” Ferguson said. “He was willing to spend time with me when he was a basketball player at UK.

“When he went professional, he stayed in touch with me. Any time I called, Jack was responsive.”

He said he also recalled seeing his mother use cardboard to cover holes in her own shoes, just so she could buy him a new pair.

“The feeling that I get when I help people is that I am paying back a debt,” he said. “White, black or His-panic, people have really stuck by me. I took that to heart.”

Ferguson often returns to the juvenile center in the evenings to tutor the students there. And he recently began tutoring at the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning.

When he was at Bryan Station, he tutored all comers, not just members of the team.

“I am strict about academics,” he said. “If I can show them my stupid ways, maybe someone could learn from that.

“When someone says, ‘This is what I used to do,’ that should automatically indicate that they have grown.”

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