Missouri students fight to foil negative narratives

By Chinelo Onwualu

In the last week of November 2018, winter hadn’t quite arrived in Jennings, Missouri, but that didn’t stop the 17 students of Sheri Wade’s WE Warriors Project Leadership class at Jennings Junior High School from transforming the school library into a winter wonderland for their WE Read Together campaign.

When they were done, the library was awash with brightly wrapped poinsettia plants along the windowsills and red leaf-shaped mats on reading tables. They’d even projected a virtual fire onto a whiteboard to give it that cozy winter feel.

The campaign, intended to advocate for literacy in young people, was part of the school’s literacy plan which included a family fun night, a book scavenger hunt, and guest authors who spoke about their works. It began with a book fair and ended with Project Leadership’s Book Café at the library.

Instead of food, the book café served literary opportunities. Each of the library’s reading tables was dedicated to a different genre, from fiction, to drama, mystery and sports. The tables all featured a “menu” that students had created, with books from that genre represented as appetizers, main courses, salads, side dishes and deserts.

“Each one was a book that you had to read for a short while to get a sense of it and then you’d put down on your menu how you felt about it,” said Wade, an interventionist at the school and coordinator of the class. “It was very exciting.”

Missouri student reading

Such innovative takes on WE Schools campaigns have earned the Project Leadership class a lot of popularity. In March 2018, Wade’s class organised their first WE Walk for Water campaign. It was a 2.8 mile (4.5 km) walk with containers of water designed to give students, staff and school administrators an idea of how difficult it can be to walk to access clean drinking water in countries like Kenya. The event made it into the St. Louis American, the largest weekly newspaper in the state.

Good news like this is rare in in Jennings, Missouri, a district of almost 15,000 residents in the city of St. Louis. Going by newspaper and television news coverage, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is a far greater incidence of violent crime than is the case.

Studies have shown that, in the United States, media reports are disproportionately more likely to feature crimes perpetrated by African-Americans. This can mean that for a community like Jennings, where the population is 89.8 per cent African-American, the only stories that ever make the news are the bad ones.

Wade knows this reality all too well. She’s worked for the Jennings school district since 2013, spending the bulk of her days teaching students how to cope with personal and situational conflicts—before things escalate. But she is doing more than just keeping her young charges in class and out of disciplinary processes.

While the district is largely middle income, about 25 per cent of its population live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data. Many families are headed by single parents who sometimes have to stretch meagre resources to cover their children’s needs. In these cases, teachers like Wade often step in to help.

“I have personally taken children to the store to buy them something to eat. I’ve bought children shoes, coats, and uniform shirts and pants,” said Wade. “When I look into my district and see that people need help, there’s just something in me that says: ‘You know what? Do it.’”

So, Wade asked for a dedicated class that students could enroll in to help contribute to their community and earn credits by doing good in the district. The class attracted students at all ends of the school’s academic spectrum—and has had just as much of a positive impact on those taking part as on those they help.

Wade began by taking students out into their neighbourhoods to pick up trash. In 2016, she began to use WE Schools resources to incorporate other service-learning opportunities into her lessons on responsibility, empathy and self-confidence. For students like Jasonee Feeherty, 13, who joined the class last year, its impact has gone deep.

“I learned to not always think about myself and that when you do positive things for people it makes you feel good, like a better person,” he said. “My grades have also improved. I think it’s because I’m more focused and thinking of others.”

That thirst to do good has even changed the way Jasonee thinks about his future career.

“I would like to be a nurse or a physical therapist,” he said. “I would like to be either of those because they are helping people become better.”

Wade’s biggest source of validation, though, has been seeing an enthusiasm for social good spread beyond her classroom. Students throughout the school have become eager to be part of the class’s campaigns, even if they can’t be part of the class. Many of them will drop by during their free periods.

Teachers and school staff also regularly check in with Wade to find out when the next leadership event will be. And Wade recently learned that nearby districts like Ferguson and Riverview are considering incorporating WE service learning programs into their school curriculums.

“Everybody has become accustomed to the goodness that comes out of this classroom,” said Wade. “And, you know? I appreciate that.”

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