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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.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She 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, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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