Wichita’s Finest: William Polite spreading love of education, kids, community
Note: This is the first in the web-exclusive series “Wichita’s Finest,” which highlights community leaders in Wichita.
WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - As former prisoners moved in and out of his home on North Erie Street in northeast Wichita throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, a young William Polite Jr., saw his life flash before his eyes.
Only Polite’s thoughts were of his future, not his past. His mother, Dilce, worked in prison ministries for nearly 50 years, so Polite began to relate to – or at least understand – people whom society discarded. The only thing abnormal about their appearance in his home was the idea that being in jail made you a bad person or kept you from making something of your life.
“People would stay with us and they would be some of the sharpest young guys and women that I’d ever met,” Polite said. “I was going, ‘How did you end up in prison? You’re super-sharp, handsome, good-looking, whatever.’ And they said, like ‘One mistake, man. Or I started messing with drugs. But I graduated from high school; I was in college when I got in trouble.’”
It was in those moments that Polite, in a house full of family – there were six of Dilce’s own children along with four grandchildren she raised – and strangers that became familiar, developed a compassion and empathy for people facing self-induced hardships.
Those weren’t words or concepts he understood at the time. But he knew that being around people who’d chosen the wrong path sparked something within him that made him want to help.
“My thing was, how can we help them before they get (to jail),” Polite said. “Well, education. School. Putting together programs that focus directly on that prevention, especially for those students that are most at risk – if you live in a certain neighborhood or if you grew up with a certain income level. “Sometimes it can be living at a certain income level that puts you at risk to become involved in stuff you shouldn’t be involved in.
“That can take your freedom away from you, or your life.”
Polite, now 56 and the director of Equity, Diversity, and Accountability for Wichita Public Schools, recognizes that he wasn’t far from the tragedies faced by those in his neighborhood – or even in his family.
Those ideas he had as a kid about education being the way out were supported by those closest to him, even when he became a teenager and more defiant to that message.
At Hadley Middle School, Polite was able to talk his mom into taking him out of gifted classes. He wanted to play sports and hang out with his friends. Being “in those smart classes” lost its appeal.
But then Dilce found an ally in North High counselor Tommy Williams. Williams had heard from a science teacher, Ray Goebel, that Polite was excelling in the subject, and that was the end of Polite in regular-education classes.
“I knew if Ray said something about anybody, especially some Black kid, that he was extremely sharp and bright,” Williams said. “So that’s when I called him down and I pushed him and I said, ‘You’re in the wrong class. These are the kind of things you need to do.’”
Polite learned to embrace his intelligence. He earned high marks in honors classes, then on the ACT – especially in mathematics, where he scored better than 30, and started hearing from colleges across the country. Ivy League schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities were among those calling.
His future seemed set.
“I’m forever grateful of that moment, of getting back in those honors classes in high school, because it really did have an impact of why I’m sitting here today,” Polite said. “I’ve always wondered if Tommy Williams and my mom hadn’t ambushed me in the 10th grade and said, ‘Nope, scratch that schedule, we want him in every honors class that’s offered, we don’t care what it is.’”
And everyone lived happily ever after, right?
Well, eventually. But the path diverted. Polite became a father in his junior year at North, when his oldest son, Brandon, was born. A year after that, a daughter.
So Polite was looking at colleges while beginning to raise a family with his girlfriend, Lisa. He couldn’t possibly do it alone.
“I had great parents,” Polite said. “…I had great in-laws, they were like my second parents more than in-laws, though. And then my parents, even though my mom and dad were divorced, my dad was still very supportive of what I was needing to get done. That whole concept of it takes a village – I had a really good village.”
Polite started in the fall of 1984 at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., then transferred a year later to Atlanta’s Morehouse College, an HBCU and the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. By the early 1990s, Polite had three kids, a wife – he and Lisa have since divorced – and was waiting tables to support himself and his family.
“We didn’t realize it at the time because we were kids, and kids are just kids, but I think back and my dad was broke,” Brandon Polite said. “But he made it work. We ate a lot of Hamburger Helper. He even taught us entrepreneurship at a young age by allowing us to open up a candy store. We actually ran a candy store out of the back part of our house in Atlanta.”
Polite finally graduated from Morehouse with a degree in mathematics in 1994, 10 years after he graduated from North.
“A lot of stuff happened in between those 10 years, though,” Polite said. “But I made it on out.”
Answering the call
Polite talks often about education and working with at-risk youth being a calling. A big part of having a calling is knowing when to answer.
After college, Polite stayed in Georgia and was waiting tables while waiting to attend air traffic control school in January. One day, he was talking to a friend who happened to be a teacher – it wasn’t a loving conversation.
“I said ‘Teachers need to do this; Oh, these teachers,’ everything everyone who hasn’t taught says about teachers,” Polite said. “Here I was doing the same.”
That friend had a challenge. DeKalb County Schools were looking for math and science teachers. With his degree in math, Polite could be hired as a long-term substitute. It wasn’t a bad idea. Polite’s two sons were with him in Georgia and he needed benefits.
He submitted his application and was hired on the spot to teach at Lithonia High School.
“And the day I walked in that room, I fell in love with education,” Polite said. “It was an alternative classroom, and once again that added to my passion for kids that had been in trouble. Dr. Clark, one of my mentors, he had been hired out of retirement to come out and clean the school up because it had really went down. Kind of like the movie Lean on Me.”
Polite’s wide-eyed enthusiasm wasn’t matched by the students. It was November, and the troubled kids in the class had already caused a handful of teachers to quit. They made it clear that Polite wouldn’t last long, either.
Polite wasn’t fazed. He had one rule – no student is allowed to prevent another from learning. Polite found a stack of Algebra books and began to share his love of math with kids who never really planned on getting an education.
Those math lessons were secondary to Polite’s true purpose, though.
“I knew the first thing, if I’m going to teach these kids anything, I’ve got to build relationships with them,” Polite said. “They’ve got to know me and I’ve got to get to know them. It wasn’t about me coming in and giving you an A, a B, a C or a D. It was about life and death for some of these kids out there, and they didn’t even realize how close they were to death and the penitentiary, probably.”
A family emergency brought Polite back to Wichita after 3 ½ years in Lithonia. He taught math at North for a year, then he was the first Teen Director at the old Boys & Girls Club at 21st and Grove before being named interim executive director.
In that time, he also began coaching the Colts of Wichita’s Junior Football League. For the players on the team, it was an experience unlike any other they’d had in sports. Winning came second. Or, at least, winning wasn’t going to come at the expense of anything that mattered in the larger picture.
“(The coaching staff) pushed us to be respectable young Black men,” said Bryant Winn, who played on that team. “They didn’t just allow for us to be stereotypical. They expected for us to respect ourselves, for us to respect other people, for us to respect authority. They just pushed really strongly what this new generation needs – we need more men on the front line like those gentlemen.”
Polite would bench players who failed to bring back school progress reports. Two players – two important players – learned that lesson the hard way, when they didn’t turn reports in and had to sit out the first half.
“I knew that they were hard on us,” Winn said. “I couldn’t fully grasp all the reasons why until I got probably 30 – 25, 30 years old. It all started to register what they were instilling in us. It took some time, because a lot of that stuff is stuff you really can’t grasp until you reach a certain level of maturity.”
Role of a Lifetime
It would be a while before Polite returned to Wichita again. He helped open charter schools in Milwaukee and St. Louis, then he went to Chicago in an educational contract with the school district.
“The second day I was there, people set a police car on fire,” Polite said. “Everything you hear about Chicago, it is the real deal.”
Polite worked with Magic Johnson’s Bridgescape Academies in Chicago. Then Polite’s mom got sick in 2015 and he returned to Wichita, first opening Build and Rebuild Math Academy on S. Laura Street. He served as a program manager for community relations with Katherine Johnson Scholar Sisters.
Then, a position opened in the USD 259 Equity, Diversity, and Accountability office.
“Nothing was really happening in the equity department,” Polite said. “As a matter of fact, we weren’t even listed in the school directory. If you’d have went in the school directory and looked for the equity department, it wasn’t in there.”
Polite needed some assurances to work in what was then an empty office. He needed an administrative assistant. And he wanted to make the department a living, breathing entity. He didn’t want to be a figurehead.
“Dr. Polite is passionate about what he does,” said Tyrone Berry, a program specialist in Polite’s department. “He’s very passionate about young people. He wants to see our youth really do well and come up from some of the adversities that they have, especially youth of color.”
A Mentor to Many
Even as program manager, before he was named director, Polite hit the ground running. He instituted the Junior League academic challenge, rewarding the youth football team in Wichita with the highest grade point average.
He’s begun mentoring programs in middle schools. His BAASE program – Better Academics And Social Excellence – involves students who are generally doing well in school and don’t get the attention of those who are frequently in trouble.
“I thought I was doing pretty well for myself,” said Tymadre Williams, a former student in Polite’s mentoring programs who’s headed to Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., this fall on a football scholarship. “I would say I was kind of egotistic, so I thought I was doing pretty good, and this guy comes in and wants me to do better than I’m already doing.”
Polite started FRAM – Future Ready Advocate Mentoring. Books Over Balls emphasizes “putting the ‘student’ in ‘student athlete.’” He’s working to reduce the number of suspensions given to young Black males and other students of color. So far, the data have been promising.
“He’s a servant leader,” Berry said. “Some leaders, they lead and they’re bossy, but he’s a servant leader. He understands that being a leader is not just telling people what to do, but getting in there and being the example. Polite is a great man. He’s a community man. He’s somebody that the community needs in this day and time.”
As Fate Would Have It
Polite has been called “Buggs” since childhood. Something about his dad thinking he looked like an insect. Back then, he was Bug, but Buggs sounds cooler, and it has stuck. Those who know Polite well exclusively use “Buggs.”
But Buggs and Polite have become one in the same. Both have a kind heart, a giving spirit, and a motivation to help.
Polite – or maybe it’s Buggs – is taking care of his 96-year-old mother, whom he credits for his passion for service and who has moved into a nursing facility. He’s also the primary caregiver for his nephew – they’re really brothers, though – Darren, “D-Force,” a fanatical Wichita State basketball fan who has cerebral palsy.
He lives with Darren in a house Polite is remodeling. The same house on North Erie where interaction with former prisoners charted the course for life.
“It started, really, with my mom and just watching her example,” Polite said. “And saying, well, how can I take my gifts and my skills to help others? That’s been the path.”
And the work never stops.
Polite, who has a doctorate degree in educational leadership, has teamed with his sons in a program called Protect Your Mind – School Halls, Not Prison Walls. It includes a book and a rap by Brandon, who put aside his distaste for the artform to support his father.
“To me he was just my dad,” Brandon Polite said. “To everyone else, he was a hero, but to me he was my dad. So my dad isn’t a perfect dad, but as a child we look for flaws sometimes, we don’t really appreciate our dads a whole lot. And I don’t think that I appreciated my dad until I was in my 30s, until I started experiencing things as an adult.”
Polite often hears from former students who are just beginning to realize the wisdom in his message. For some of them, it might feel like it’s too late to be saved. They’re in prison or headed down an even more dangerous path. But for Polite, it’s never too late.
“It’s not just about having a job here,” Polite said. “It’s really about the fact that this is part of my assignment from a higher power. I really believe it. I’m really supposed to be here right now at this time doing what I’m doing. I never really planned on being back in Wichita right now. I was living in all these other exciting cities.
“But I know I’m supposed to be back here, for a time like this.”
Copyright 2022 KWCH. All rights reserved.