As Tacoma Public Schools (TPS) tightens its leash on its no bullying policy, middle schools all around Tacoma are trying to do their part. Gray Middle School staff and students, however, are bringing it to a whole new level.
On Jan. 11, approximately 150 sixth to eighth-grade students filled the South Tacoma Boys and Girls Club gymnasium ready to attend Gray's first Black Summit. Instead of their regular classes, students volunteered to attend the day of workshops and guest speakers, all centered around the importance of students being successful in their own education. "They all had a choice and anyone had a right to come," said teacher Debra Spencer-Grant. "These students wanted to be here." Seventh-grader Da'Sheion Smith said she wanted to attend the Summit because she thought the information would be helpful. She said she liked being able to share her own experiences while learning about her friends experiences.
"They said that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to drop out and I don't want that," Smith said. The Black Summit followed the Latino Summit held in November. Later this year, Gray will host an all-school summit as part of an ongoing process that aims to better students' education through compiling student input. The school hopes to get to the bottom of not only the Achievement Gap for African American students, but for all ethnicities. "We need to fix the gap wherever it is," Principal Kevin Ikeda explained. "We can't fix everything at once; that would be too much to chew. It needs to be taken one bit at a time." Ikeda, as well as the rest of his staff, want students to understand that they are expected to succeed and hope they are inspired to find their voices to speak up about issues that effect their education.
"At the current moment, only one out of 10 students is succeeding right now," Ikeda said of the Achievement Gap among African American students. "This worries me." By writing questions on large pieces of butcher paper, teachers hoped the students would provide the tools needed to bridge the gap schools in the TPS district are struggling with. With seven topics spread around the room, students scribbled their responses with depth and sincerity. Afterward staff guided students into reflecting what they had written and ways to overcome these obstacles. Topics differed from favorite school subjects to reasons for bullying.
That evening, parents and community members were invited to join the Summit and hear what their children shared about their school experiences, and what can be done to encourage success in the future. "Teachers should pay attention to what's going on at home," a sixth-grade student replied during the reflection period. Students from Mt. Tahoma, and other speakers, were invited to share their stories of how life will be different in high school. Among them was keynote speaker Robert Jones, a college prep advisor at Lincoln High School. Jones brought to light topics that many students in middle and high school face every day by "keeping it real" for young minorities in today's society. Bringing up stereotypes was a hot subject for students, as hands flew into the air to talk about what had happened to them.
"Stereotypes don't mean anything if you don't let it affect you." said Ronnie Davis, seventh grader, when asked how he viewed stereotypes. Sharing his own experiences of being bullied and teased, a variety of emotions displayed upon the youth's faces. Jones stressed the importance of change. You cannot make any other change until you've made a change within yourself, was one of the major points Jones enlightened the students with before he departed with a final statement:
"If you love yourself, stand up and make some noise for yourself."
The room went wild.