Since before he was born, Robert Westmoreland Kittrell has had to get free. It's how he earned his nickname.
"I used to kick when my mom was pregnant, and my dad could see it, so they started calling me Spike," Kittrell says. "They haven't called me anything else."
As a teenager, Spike Kittrell was still kicking. When he started at James Island High School in the mid-'90s, his grades were fine, but he says he was frustrated with the teachers and skipped class nearly every day. So during his freshman year, he applied to Clark Academy, an academic alternative program on James Island borne out of a partnership between the dropout prevention program Communities in Schools and the Charleston County School District.
The program is meant to help students who have fallen behind to focus on the essentials and catch up on their credit hours. Clark features small classroom sizes (15 students or fewer in core classes) and offers little in the way of extracurricular activities or elective classes. Kittrell graduated on time in 2000 and went on to pursue a career in art. This month, he returned to Clark to paint a mural on a cinder-block interior wall.
Kittrell used supplies donated by the downtown shop Artist & Craftsman Supply as part of the Trident United Way Day of Caring. The mural, which he completed last week, pays homage to the school's namesake, Septima Poinsette Clark, a Charleston-area teacher who fought for equal education and voting rights during the Civil Rights movement. A black-and-white portrait of Clark now graces a wall near the school's entrance, surrounded by radiating multi-colored stripes.
Students at Clark are still technically enrolled at district schools, and they have the option of graduating with their original classmates. Steve Liverani, a student support specialist at Clark, says students come to the program with a variety of back stories. Low-income neighborhoods, family issues, and poor choices early in life have contributed to many of them going off-track. "In the school system, once you start falling behind, it's really tough sometimes to catch up," Liverani says. "This is a perfect program for kids that just need the opportunity to focus on their core classes and get caught up."
Kittrell speaks fondly of his time at Clark. Some of the rules at the time were strict, including a no-tolerance policy for skipping class, but he also got the sense that the teachers treated him as an adult. "It wasn't a place for dumb people," Kittrell says. "It was just a place for people who were sick of jerk teachers." (With this, Kittrell glances expectantly over his shoulder at Liverani, who responds, "It's a good endorsement for Clark, but not for the rest of the county.")
After graduating from Clark in 2000, Kittrell planned to join the Air Force, but his eyesight was less than perfect. So he took off and traveled for a year in Canada and along the West Coast before returning to his home state for an internship at a stained glass studio in Bluffton. He has worked part-time jobs to get by through the years, including as a car washer and as a mechanic for the City of Charleston, but he's working toward a full-time career in art, faux finishing, and murals.
"Here's Spike, who graduated from here," Liverani says, watching from down the hallway as Kittrell touches up what will become a photorealistic depiction of a picture frame. "For [students] to see someone that was in this position 12 years ago, to see someone that is successful and has made the right choices and is doing well ... this is a living, breathing example of what we're trying to teach them."