Learning, Inspiring, and Leading!

By: Debby Harnishfeger, Beta Zeta Chapter ‘11

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

School Leader Joanna Belcher: “Second grade, what year are you going to college?”

Second graders (shouting loud and proud): “2022!”

“First grade, what year are you going to college?”

First graders (shouting loud and proud): “2023!”

“Kindergarten, what year are you going to college?”

Kindergarteners (shouting loud and proud): “2024!”

“And where do we go after college?”

Everyone: “Graduate School!!”

This call-and-response is one of the things scholars say at SPARK Academy every morning after breakfast. It is an incredible example of KIPP schools’ commitment to supporting the scholars to and through college, and an affirmation of the expectations KIPP staff members have for the scholars. These high expectations account for a substantial portion of KIPP and TEAM schools’ success rate. (The graduate school part blew me away, so I love telling the scholars that I am in graduate school.)

We learned a lot about expectations today. And about the power of Community. When we got to SPARK this morning, we saw that someone (or some people) had picked up the mud on the ground below our mural and spread it over our sketches from yesterday. It really upset Melissa, the teacher who is our main contact person for the project. It left some of us shaken as well. This gave us an idea of what forces the SPARK scholars are up against in their pursuit of education and their journey to college. We went in to the morning meeting looking for hope and strength. The scholars gave us both.

Our Phi Sigma Pi values supplemented by the heart-warming words of the SPARK scholars renewed our energy and dedication to our project. Three of the SPARK core values are “Act as a team,” “Reach for Excellence,” and “Keep going.” So that’s what we did. We brushed and scrubbed the dirt off the walls and started painting.

Whether you believe in Karma, luck, religious deities, or just the futility of humans trying to predict the weather, that’s fine. All I know is that last night we prepared for rain, but today was beautiful and sunny and a perfect day for painting! We worked in teams on certain parts of the mural, and floated to different areas to help our Brothers when they needed extra support. We painted all day, breaking only for lunch, and doing so in shifts so that someone was always outside with the mural and the supplies.

We worked on community-building by consciously and deliberately talking to everyone we could about the purpose of the mural, and our intentions in creating it. People walking in the neighborhood would stop to watch what we were doing, and sometimes ask questions. We told them about how the mural was to build school spirit and pride, for ALL of the students in the building. (Three schools share the same building: two public schools and SPARK Academy.) Their responses were positive. We talked to parents as they walked their children past us into the school. We talked to teachers as they brought their students out for recess. And we talked to the students from the other schools.

I think we learned the most from the students. Many of them were hurt and unhappy at first, saying things like “Oh something else for SPARK” and “Great, SPARK is taking over our side of the building.” We were constant and persistent in telling them that the mural was for them too. Watching their faces brighten was wonderful. Other students responded with disbelief, asking “Why are you here?” and “Are you getting paid?” We were happy to tell them that we are volunteering our time because we want to support them to have pride in their school and their community. Gradually, as they began to understand what we were doing and why, they started saying things like “Oooo, that looks really good,” and “You’re doing a great job,” and even “Thank you for doing this!” It was inspiring and definitely “filled our buckets” (something SPARK teachers say, referring to how doing good things for other people makes us feel good.)

After the long hot day of painting, we had a wonderful treat courtesy of Dr. and Mrs. Peachy: fabulous ice cream at a local shop! And Krista shared the equally refreshing news that our efforts in talking to the community, teachers, and students had not gone unnoticed. Melissa had told Krista that the teachers from the other schools were talking to each other and talking to SPARK teachers, and that they were impressed with our work and pleased with how we reached out to them.

The ABP project in Shelby was highly visible to the Shelby community, and well-received. Our project here in Newark is the most highly visible project since Shelby, and we are working very hard to help the community take ownership of the mural. We are not only making a difference for the scholars at SPARK Academy, but we are also making a difference for the students of the two other schools, and making a difference for the entire Newark community.

Your support means a lot to us, so feel free to send us Brotherly love and encouragement! And whatever tomorrow brings, we will continue to Act as a Team, Reach for Excellence, and Keep going. We are truly discovering our potential; learning, inspiring, and leading!

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