According to Lakota West senior Jada Dunn, the best aspect of participating in the school’s peer mentoring group is that “We get to talk about what’s bugging us and to get others’ perspective. We can share anything as it’s a safe environment and we know there will be encouragement from the others.”
Dunn, who has been involved with the group since the beginning of this year, says she “appreciates the affirmation I get by coming here. It helps to share and hold each other accountable.”
According to Principal Elgin Card, that’s the purpose of the club: to provide a network of support for African-American students that allows them to share frustrations, challenges and opportunities.
“Many students didn’t know each other previously, so they have become a cohort, a group that holds one another responsible for their grades, behavior and decisions. They truly mentor each other, helping them work out and address issues.”
According to Dr. Monique C. Johnson, who’s one of the co-coordinators of Lakota’s “Champions for Change” cultural inclusion program, “The group is a great opportunity for students to share their feelings and to encourage one another. Research has shown that African American students who attend schools where they are in the minority experience feelings of isolation and alienation at times. Social support systems like this group are a great way to support, retain, and help students adjust as well as excel.”
The desire to help every student feel welcome and accepted is the foundation of the “Champions for Change” cultural proficiency training program for Lakota staff. At its core is building a stronger culture of inclusiveness and understanding that supports high achievement for students of all different backgrounds. The program acknowledges a demographic trend at Lakota defined by steady changes in the cultural, racial, socioeconomic and even cognitive make-up of the district’s students and families.
And programs such as the peer mentoring group help promote such inclusiveness through open dialogue.
The group started four years ago when the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice members and Talbert House employees Diana Pearson and Chris Gibbs offered to support such a group. Both work for the Court and Corrections department of Talbert House and have witnessed how poor choices can lead to life-altering consequences.
They volunteer their time to assist with the peer mentoring group with backing from both organizations. “We’re fortunate that Talbert House encourages us to get involved with the group as part of its mission to build a stronger community one life at a time,” states Pearson.
“We wanted to look at building up young people’s decision-making skills, empowering them to make rational, future-based choices and to relate how their actions now can positively affect their future,” she adds.
Gibbs’ fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, had a strong leadership development program, so they incorporated aspects from it at first.
“We’ve evolved into the current structure and focus, and have expanded the core group,” notes Pearson. “The students have really taken to it, so much so that we now have about 25-30 students who regularly attend the sessions.”
The group has addressed topics such as community policing, self-esteem, dating and relationship issues. A similar program, focused on sixth grade students, started in January 2014 at Woodland Elementary and that group of girls continues to meet now as students at Liberty Junior. “We plan to continue with them through graduation,” states Pearson.
“While we don’t focus solely on race issues, it often comes up throughout the conversation,” says Gibbs. At a recent session, for example, the students discussed the novel Huckleberry Finn, with one student mentioning the difficulty reading it due to the derogatory words. In the end, students walked away with a resolution: “Move beyond the past and make the future different.”
Cedric Thomas, a junior at Lakota West, sees such change in himself. He says, “In here, I can get stuff off of my chest. The group helps me process things so I don’t take them so personally. Even in the halls, the others help me make better decisions and keep me on track.”
Thanks to the success of the group, Card is working with school counselors to determine if other peer mentoring sessions can be offered. “We’ve seen great things in this group and I hope to open up the possibility to others,” he adds.