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Dr. Steve Perry, founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., speaks in the chapel of McCallie School on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Dr. Perry spoke to the crowd of private school students and faculty about privilege and responsibility.

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Nationally known educator urges McCallie students to share the advantages they've been given

Students filling the city's top private schools did not earn the advantages they're benefiting from, just like students living in poverty and attending public schools didn't do anything to earn the disadvantages they're dealt, Steve Perry told McCallie's student body Wednesday.

"You have to use your advantages to create more opportunity for more people," Perry told the sea of boys filling the school's chapel.

Many students across the county are living in poverty and are working hard to reach success, and they are just as talented, if not more so, than McCallie students, Perry told the boys. But they don't have the same advantages.

Perry is a black man who came from multiple generations of poverty to lead Capital Preparatory Harbor School in Bridgeport, Conn. Perry previously founded and was principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., which was deemed one of the best schools in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. Both schools work to provide predominantly poor students a quality education that prepares them for college.

Growing up, Perry said, he viewed people who had unearned advantages in life as not wanting anything to do with him and as taking opportunities away from him.

"I grew up with a chip on my shoulder," Perry said.

Kids are tired of being held back by things out of their control like being born into poverty and having unstable families, he continued.

Standing at the center of the chapel's stage, Perry told the boys they have a moral obligation not to hoard the advantages they've been given, such as an elite education and a safe, beautiful campus.

Following his chapel talk, Perry spoke informally with a group of boys during lunch.

Perry asked them, "What is McCallie like for you?"

The work is hard, boys answered, with hours of homework each night. Others highlighted the support they receive from their teachers and classmates, and said they will have many choices of where to attend college.

David White, a senior who is from Atlanta and is a boarder at the school, said the disadvantages Perry described aren't foreign to him.

"Your talk reminded me of where I am from," White said. "It reminded me of home."

He said the diversity of thought is one of the things he appreciates the most about McCallie, and he doesn't take for granted that he's receiving this education and is expected to use it to help others.

As the boys ate from plates piled high with fresh pizza and sipped soft drinks, Perry urged them to push themselves beyond their comfort zone in the people they interact with and the experiences they have.

"Not enough of us really get the richness of going to school with people that are different than us," Perry said. "I want you to be uncomfortable, because that's when you're growing."

Wyatt Reedy, also a senior at McCallie, told Perry he feels like he's the advantaged middle-class kid he's describing, and worried he'd never really understand what it was like for people born and raised in poverty.

Perry urged all of the boys to be open and vulnerable with each other, and spend the time it takes to get to know people from different backgrounds.

McCallie is surrounded by a big black fence, Perry reminded the boys.

"It's not just a boundary, it's also a metaphor for some people," he said.

Never forget to provide opportunity for those living on the other side of that black fence, he reminded them in closing.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or krainwater@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.

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