116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Black middle school students in the African American Awareness Program are learning about their history, reading books featuring characters that look like them and learning how to protect themselves from “police brutality.”
Georgia Oduor, 13, a seventh-grader at Harding Middle School in Cedar Rapids, said one of the most valuable things she’s learned in the program is her rights and what she should and shouldn’t do when interacting with a police officer.
A lot of what Georgia learns about in the program is history she isn’t taught in her other classes, she said. This includes learning about Alexander Clark, an activist remembered for his work in helping to desegregate Iowa's schools, and more about the Greensboro sit-ins in 1960, when young Black students staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and refused to leave after being denied service.
The program is an after-school program students can opt into at Cedar Rapids middle schools. To participate, students are required to have the equivalent of a 2.5 grade-point average, good attendance and good behavior.
Janette Schroeder, facilitator for the Harding African American Awareness Program and eighth-grade social studies teacher, said the program is a space for students to have difficult conversations that “aren’t always addressed in school,” such as about systemic racism.
Systemic racism is racism that is embedded in the laws and regulations of a society or an organization. It is demonstrated as discrimination in areas such as criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, education and political representation.
Schroeder, who is white, said teachers of color are needed at Harding, and more across district buildings. “It’s important for Black, brown and biracial students to get a chance to learn positive parts of their history and develop pride in themselves and their culture,” she said.
There are 13 students in the program at Harding.
Marley Shaughnessy, 13, a seventh-grader at Harding, returned to the program for a second year because of the friends she’s made and to learn about history “in depth.” Often when history about Black people is taught in traditional classes, the focus is only on slavery, she said.
Taya Archibald, 13, also a seventh-grader at Harding, said she’s been learning about who she is as a person by being a part of the program. She also is learning how to address people who use racial slurs or who she disagrees with.
Taya has come to trust Schroeder — who facilitates the program at Harding — and goes to her when she needs help, she said.
At Taft Middle School, the African American Awareness Program is facilitated by Monique Clark, who also is the engagement specialist at Taft and one of three Black staff in the school, she said.
“It’s not very often kids have someone who looks like them who they can work closely with and who can encourage and support them to be their best self,” Clark said.
The 18 students in the program at Taft meet weekly for book study, talk about the news — particularly as it relates to Black people — and hear from a professional who is Black about achieving career goals.
Talking about policing could “eliminate potential negative experiences” students might have when they know how to approach an officer and what their rights are, Clark said.
Clark considered herself a “life teacher” to the students in the program, but some even call her “mom,” she said. “I approach them all with kindness, but I don’t play. They know they will be held accountable,“ Clark said.
“Kids need to see positive examples” of Black people throughout history, Clark said. They “need to learn about their communities, who they are and the potential of who they can become.”
“I grew up in schools where I was one of the few kids of color, and I didn’t have anyone who looked like me to talk to,” Clark said. “For these kids in particular, I try to give as much of me as I can. I have kids that I know come and talk to me because I look like them. I’m humbled by that, and I’m not going to take that for granted.”
Eleven percent of Harding’s student body is Black or African American. Almost 67 percent of the students are white, and the other students are Hispanic, multiracial or Asian, according to the Iowa Department of Education.
At Taft, about 9 percent of the students are Black or African American, 73 percent are white and other students are Hispanic, multiracial and Asian.
Setting students up for success
The African American Awareness Program feeds in to the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success, a six-week summer program for Black students in the Cedar Rapids and College Community school districts.
The Academy was founded over 30 years ago by former Washington High School teacher Ruth White. It provides students an education they can't find in a public school classroom. It teaches students about Black history, literature, math and science and holds a postsecondary seminar to help students prepare for college and how to be successful once they get there.
White sought to bring that same education to younger students — first through an Academy Expansion for elementary school students and then by launching the African American Awareness Program a few years ago.
The Academy Expansion teaches students in grades three through five academic and leadership skills and cultural awareness. It is housed at Johnson STEAM Academy and meets once a week during the school year.
To get involved in these programs, visit the Academy’s website at theacademysps.com
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