- Sponsorship -

New Sense of Belonging Leads to Improved Grades, Behavior

As a school social worker and black woman, Brooke Davis found a trend at Wyoming Junior High School distressing: The African-American girl population was leading every other group of students in suspensions.

Girls were acting out and turning on each other. Some were insubordinate and disrespectful with teachers. They weren’t getting involved with extracurricular programs or athletics, and many had low grades.

“We were dealing with fights and constant, constant discipline,” Davis said.

She knew something had to be done to turn the girls’ behavior around in a positive way, connect them with school and make them feel like they mattered. She needed to bring them together to show them their potential not only as students, but as leaders.

That was during the 2012-2013 school year, when 31 discipline referrals involved African-American girls. Last year, there were just five such referrals.

“We’ve seen so much growth,” Davis said. “It really is amazing when you see the girls and the end result of what this has come to.”

Davis and four girls on an initial steering committee started the African American Leadership Academy. Girls who join come once a week after school to talk, participate in activities, go on outings and express themselves.

At the same time, Lillian Cummings-Pulliams, a Wyoming Intermediate School psychologist, started a separate academy there for fifth- and sixth-grade African-American girls. She and Davis saw the same type of problems.

“I had it on my heart that our girls really needed something,” said Cummings-Pulliams, whose group includes 16 girls. “I think our girls have a greater sense of belonging and being part of a group. This is a good place for them, where they feel comfortable and can be more involved in a school environment.”

Seventh-graders Tajanna Price, Morgan Lamar and Shia Jenkins chat
Seventh-graders Tajanna Price, Morgan Lamar and Shia Jenkins chat

Bonding and Realizing Their Potential

When they first arrived in the junior high computer lab on a recent afternoon, the girls checked their grades, attendance and tardies online. Good marks earned them fake money to buy snacks and other goodies on display. They spent time doing fun activities, talking and just being themselves.

The girls told of school and the social drama they used to get involved with. They said the group helps them build friendships, self-esteem and motivation. Several who never considered it before now dream of going to college.

“I needed help getting my grades up,” said Traijon’ua Key, an eighth-grader, whose grades jumped from C’s to straight A’s. She sat with her friends Deija Coldiron and Aisha Sheriff, also eighth-graders, giggling frequently.

“Something that made me confident is to be around others that support me,” said Aisha. Added Traijon’ua, “When I come to Leadership Academy, I feel like I can share my feelings.”

A Need to Be Part of Something

Brooke Davis said as a girl she was “naughty,” and didn’t get the best grades, but she had very supportive parents. She developed a drive and motivation to pursue an education. The middle school girls need such strong role models, she said.

“In a school system they want to be known and seen,” Davis said, explaining that poor behaviors are likely attention-seeking. Yet, when she asked why they weren’t joining clubs or sports, the girls said they never thought of it as an option. “They never felt they were able to, or had the confidence.”

Cummings-Pulliams said she also can reach the girls in a unique way.

“I think I can say some things to them that other people couldn’t. As an African American woman, I can say, ‘This is how you need to see things’ and ‘Look at it from this perspective.'”

All students, regardless of race or gender, need positive connection points, she said. If a person isn’t involved and active, and doesn’t have a sense of belonging, that can lead to depression and feelings of worthlessness.

“Kids need to feel like they are a part of something, and they will be a part of something bad if not good,” Davis said.

Lexis Pearson, a 10th-grader who now works with the younger girls, said she’s become more open and friendly.

“I came a long way,” Lexis said. “I was one of the girls who was like, ‘I can’t hang with her.’ I thought I was too cool to hang with certain groups or people. I think it’s changed a lot of us for the better.”

The girls, Davis and administrators also discussed whether African-American girls were being unfairly targeted as a minority group concerning behavior.

While the girls owned up to their behavior, Davis said teachers often handle Issues of insubordination and disrespect subjectively. Staff is developing consistent measures of dealing with behavior issues.

Social contracts signed by the girls spell out expectations concretely, and the girls are learning to better communicate with adults. Teachers are more open to working with the girls toward solutions before penalizing them.

“We have to own the fact that on some level we know what disrespect is,” Davis said. “Teachers know the girls are working on (improving behavior).  Girls now know how to have that discussion with the adult.”

Developing Pride

The African American Leadership Academy helps girls develop self-esteem and friendship
The African American Leadership Academy helps girls develop self-esteem and friendship

Seventh-grader Shia Jenkins said she has brought her grades up a lot. After visiting Central Michigan University with group members, she said, “That made me want to go to college.”

There is also less drama now, the girls said.

“The number of fights are reduced, grades are improved and ladies started to put an effort into being better people,” said Sa’la Sims-Johnson, a tenth-grader who now mentors the younger girls. “Leadership Academy taught me to be more organized and go for things I believe in, strive for success, and that hard work pays off. It also taught me to respect myself as a lady.”

Davis helps them see themselves differently, Sa’la added: “People label African-American girls as ‘drama.’ She teaches us we’re more than that.”

Middle School social worker Michelle Potter said she sees a big increase in the girls’ confidence.

“They care more about their grades and each other,” Potter said. “They are more quick to ask for help,” she added, noting that attendance has also improved. “They are making connections on, ‘What I do today impacts me forever.'”

Shia Jenkins, a seventh-grader, said the academy has built her self-esteem.

“It made me become more proud of myself,” Shia said. “Sometimes I think people don’t like me because of my race. Now I feel more confident and proud to be a black girl.”

- Sponsorship -
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


Students reopen fine-dining restaurant six months after closing its doors

GRCC’s The Heritage has reopened to the general public, with culinary students cooking, baking their way toward degrees...

Plotting for a plot

Students’ hand-drawn maps are meant for the safekeeping of memories and to spur ideas for when they write personal narratives...

Outdoor lover, zen seeker, middle-schooler hope-giver

Bill Cataldo is the new K-8 principal for Cedar Springs’ new Red Hawks Online virtual school this year. School News Network took some time to get to know him better in this edition of Meet Your Principal...

The year of learning differently

SNN asked a sampling of students from across the county how it’s going for them so far in a school year of multiple instruction models...


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Related Articles

‘I want it to look happy’

With help from generous donors, elementary teachers worked to make welcoming, kid-friendly space while following the rules of social distancing and sanitation...

‘A positive in a time that’s somewhat negative’

The new two-story Wyoming High School building opened to 10th- through 12th-graders, who were happy to settle into their new digs for the first week of in-person classes...

Student athletes glad football is back, after trying other sports

Some student athletes briefly competed in other sports, such as tennis and cross country, after fall football was canceled. Now they’re happy to be back on the gridiron...
- Sponsorship -


Engagement: The Most Important Measure of Student Success

Polls find that students’ engagement in their school work declines as they ascend the grades. Tests that don’t relate to their real-life experiences exacerbate the problem...


Food ‘angels’ support hungry kids through pandemic

They work all across Kent County, guardian angels with peanut butter on their hands and crumbs on their shirtsleeves...
- Sponsorship -


Maranda Where You LiveWGVU