Education

Black students find their voice at the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success

Dr. Ruth White, front, is the founder and executive director of the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success, a six-w
Dr. Ruth White, front, is the founder and executive director of the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success, a six-week program serving Black students from the Cedar Rapids and College Community school districts held each summer at Mount Mercy University. The academy also offers programs for middle and elementary students. Dr. White is joined by (back row, from left, John Ross of Cedar Rapids, who attended the academy three years and returned as an intern for another two, and high school students and academy participants 17-year old Cameron Davis of Cedar Rapids and 18-year old Callie Brown of Cedar Rapids. Photographed on Saturday, February 6, 2021 at the Sisters of Mercy University Center on the campus of Mount Mercy University. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — As a Black boy growing up in public schools, John Ross, now 21, said he felt “ignored.”

Once as a student at Kennedy High School he was accused of cheating on a math test by his teacher after he earned an A. School guidance counselors suggested he enroll in “easier” classes, even after he earned a 4.3 GPA, he said.

Hungry for a different kind of learning environment, Ross enrolled in the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success, a six-week summer program for Black students in the Cedar Rapids and College Community school districts.

Summers at the Academy helped Ross stand up to teachers who didn’t think he could succeed and envision what kind of future he wanted for himself.

“It taught me to be prepared, do more than you feel is necessary to set yourself apart,” recalled Ross, who graduated from Kennedy in 2017 and is now a junior at the University of Iowa. “If people expect excellence from you, you will be excellent.”

What is the Academy?

Dr. Ruth White founded the Academy for Scholastic and Personal success over 30 years ago. The name, she admits, is too long, “but it says exactly what the program is.”

The Academy provides students an education they can’t find in a public school classroom. It teaches students about Black history, literature, math, science and a post-secondary seminar to help students prepare for college and how to be successful once they get there.

White was an English teacher at Washington High School when she was asked by the principal if she would become the academic adviser to minority students.

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The work she did with those students showed her that a lot of students of color weren’t making a connection that if they did well in high school, they could go on to college and a career of their choosing.

Today there are four teachers with the Academy, all of whom are Black. Two of the teachers are now professors in other states — Ohio and Maryland — and return to Iowa each summer to teach at the Academy because that’s how much they believe in it, White said.

Black students receiving instruction from Black teachers is “hugely important and hugely impactful,” White said.

Teachers expect excellence

The Academy is rigorous, and teachers expect excellence. Students can earn a high school credit each summer they complete the program — but it’s not the driving force behind why students enroll in the Academy.

“We try to build intellectual and self-confidence muscles in the same way sports teach kids weight training. It’s a matter of being able to accomplish what you set your mind to,” White said.

At the end of the summer, they take a trip funded by the Academy. In the past, they’ve traveled to Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Baltimore.

In-person classes and summer trips are postponed until after the pandemic.

Tuition for the Academy is $200, and there are scholarships for students who can’t afford it. The Academy is largely funded through donations.

“The only reason we charge tuition is because students value what they pay for,” White said. “What we impart to students exceeds any cost.”

Celebrating Black history, literature

When Prairie High School senior Callie Brown, 18, first heard about the Academy she felt as if the school just wanted her to be in a Black program because she’s Black.

She went home and talked to her parents about it, who thought it would be an amazing opportunity.

“Ultimately, I decided to give it a shot,” she said.

The first few days at the Academy can be uncomfortable. Students are asked to be vulnerable. To look at the teacher and the class and speak up when they give an answer to a question.

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“It’s a vulnerable thing for a lot of us because that’s the first time someone cares if you’re reading loudly or looking up when people are talking to you,” Brown said.

“They won’t let you off the hook — not in a mean way — it’s, ‘You’re awesome. You can do this.’”

Brown’s enrolled in the program three times throughout high school and regularly recommends it to her peers.

It gave her the confidence and knowledge how to respond to racist comments and stand up for herself and others.

She feels a responsibility to combat racism, which at times can be burdensome, she said.

“A lot of the things happening today with achievement gaps (between Black and white students), neighborhoods, the way Black people talk and carry themselves is carried from generation to generation,” Brown said. “If (Black history) was taught in schools, we could actually understand the root of the problem.”

Cameron Davis, 17, a senior at Kennedy High School, is a wiz at science and math. Literature, however, is a different story, he said.

It wasn’t until he enrolled in the Academy that he felt as if he could relate to the books he was reading — all written by authors of color.

One of his favorite books is “The Blacker the Berry” by Wallace Thurman, which addresses colorism — prejudice against people with dark skin tones.

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Public school arts classes neglect Black writers, and U.S. and world history classes only focus on Black history in terms of slavery, desegregation and the Civil Rights movement, Cameron said.

At the Academy, students celebrate the impact Black people have made throughout history as well as systemic racism and racial injustice, Cameron said.

“History is written by the victors,” Cameron said. “You have to research fully and include all perspectives instead of just one, and you will really know what happened.”

Anti-racism efforts in Cedar Rapids schools

White is in a “constant state of frustration” with inequality in schools.

“Naively I thought the issues we were confronting would have resolved themselves by now,” White said. “Do I think the Academy will ever not be needed? Not from this vantage point.”

With Noreen Bush as superintendent of Cedar Rapids schools, a position she has held for just under two years, White said it’s “like a brand-new day.”

“The sun is shining to have a superintendent like Noreen who does put her money where her mouth is and supports (the Academy) without any veiled interest or subterfuge,” White said.

The Academy receives $25,000 each year from the Cedar Rapids Community School District.

‘When a child speaks’

White sees the Academy making a difference for students.

Academy alumni Rahma and Raafa Elsheikh, who are students at Kennedy High School, approached the Cedar Rapids school board this past summer with several Black Lives Matter demands.

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The demands included teaching Black History in U.S. and world history classes beyond slavery, hiring more teachers and staff of color, and for the district to end its contract with the Cedar Rapids Police Department and remove school resource officers from buildings.

In response, Bush started a Superintendent’s Advisory Council to begin new anti-racism efforts and supported the creation of Black Student Unions at all Cedar Rapids high schools.

“When a child speaks, people tend to listen,” White said.

White is “bolstered” by the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement, she said.

“I’m watchful,” she said. “I know what the district has said. I see the beginning, but whether it comes to fruition, I don’t know. It’s not a new road for me and for many others.”

While Rhama and Raafa Elsheikh are examples of more vocal students of the academy, White said every student walks out of the academy empowered and confident.

“There are other kids from whom you didn’t hear or may have had their voices heard in a different way. Who maybe didn’t protest, but write. Who maybe didn’t write, but were active in school groups,” White said.

Programs for students third through 12th grade

The Academy launched a new program this year at all six Cedar Rapids middle schools — the African American Awareness Program.

Each group has between six and 10 students who meet virtually once a week after school.

The students meet with a site leader and work on Black history, literature, self-confidence and self-respect, White said.

The Academy also oversees a program for elementary students at Johnson STEAM Academy and hopes to expand it to more elementary schools.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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