by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
“What are the top ‘soft’ skills employers are looking for?” Leah Belote asks students at Sunnymead Middle School in Moreno Valley.
Belote looks expectantly at the teens, who show up for a Junior Black Achievers meeting every Wednesday before school begins. Today is Dress for Success Day, so the boys are wearing shirts and ties, and the girls wear slacks and skirts.
Students raise their hands to discuss skills that are valued in the workplace, including teamwork, communication, time management and leadership skills.
“And you know not to come into a job interview with sagging pants, Jordans and bling-bling,” says the Moreno Valley Educators Association member with a smile.
Junior Black Achievers clubs meet weekly at each of the district’s six middle schools to discuss everything from job skills to college to technology. Activities include tutoring, field trips to colleges, community service, and presentations of guest speakers who are successful African American role models. There are also social events that teach etiquette, with adult guest speakers giving advice and encouragement.
“I was a C student, and now I’m getting B’s,” says eighth-grader Tario Scott, who is vice president. “This club helped me feel better about myself and encouraged me to get better grades so I can be on a college path.”
Before joining the club, seventh-grader Ariyon Dawson was shy. She seldom participated in class discussions and was a C student.
“Now I’m on the high honor roll. I focus better in class. I have learned how to communicate with people.”
Eighth-grader and club president Jay Martinez joined last year because he wanted his grades to go up.
“Once I started going to tutoring and asking the teachers for help, I was able to ask questions in class. We went on a field trip to UC Santa Barbara. It was very exciting to see students of different races in the same classroom wanting to be successful and go somewhere in life. I’m planning on going to the University of Connecticut or to Arizona State.”
The club is geared toward African American students, but does not discriminate. White and Latino students have also joined and are doing better in school.
A districtwide effort
The middle school clubs are just part of a districtwide effort to help African American students achieve their potential.
At the high school level, Young Black Achievers (YBA) and Black Student Union (BSU) programs focus on community service projects, college preparation, scholarships and workplace success.
Members must maintain a 3.0 GPA to be in YBA, and a 2.0 for BSU. YBA members tutor struggling peers who belong to the Black Student Union on their campus, and both BSU and YBA serve as mentors and tutors to Junior Black Achievers at local middle schools.
“My senior project is mentoring middle school girls and helping them to improve their self-esteem,” explains Sunterrah Palmer, a senior at Valley View High School. “Working together, we can be strong and help each other.”
Taariq Elmahadi, a member of the Young Black Achievers, says the clubs have fostered unity among black students that has improved overall school culture.
“Before, we were disconnected as a whole. We were fighting amongst each other. My eyes have opened. I realize how important it is to bring the black community together and help each other.”
The parent equation
Parents working with Moreno Valley Educators Association members are a huge part of the shift. They formed an African American Advisory Council for the district, which meets monthly, and nearly every school site has an African American Parent Advisory Council.
The partnership of MVEA members, African American parents, students, administrators and other community stakeholders occurred after a historic Underground Railroad Tour in the Deep South a few years ago. Teachers and parents say they came back from that journey deeply committed to increasing parent involvement, boosting student achievement and fostering a spirit of togetherness.
“We started reaching out to parents, because they have the power to change things here,” says MVEA member Kymberly Taylor, a school counselor and adviser of United Black Student Unions of Southern California, who is credited with starting the collaboration. “As we build strong relations with parents and connect with them, the test scores of African American students have gone up. They are still not at the level where they ought to be, but they have gone up.”
API scores of black Moreno Valley School District students have gone from 651 to 698 over five years.
Parents and MVEA members created a curriculum called Footsteps to Success based on the seven principals of Kwanzaa to help black students feel more connected to school. Most high school classes focus more on white accomplishments in textbooks, and the Footsteps to Success curriculum offers a black perspective with activities such as bringing in storytellers from UC Riverside’s Black Voice Foundation.
“The curriculum fosters a feeling of kids feeling connected to the community, and that in turn helps them focus on being prepared for college and the career world,” says Taylor. “If we build those relationships, we will lose fewer kids.”
Restoration Jubilee Center, a faith-based organization in Riverside County, is also a partner, sponsoring free workshops on SAT preparation, how to pay for college, and academic success strategies.
Micki Clowney, a parent who serves on the district’s African American Advisory Council, says she is pleased parents are playing a stronger role and more involved in the schools. Parents, she says, serve as a “clearinghouse” when district and school strategies are discussed to improve student achievement.
“Traditionally, it has been us against them,” she explains of the relationship between African American parents and school staff. “But now we are working to create a village. We are finally on the same page.”
Back to Main Page