U-46 leaders aim to expand programs helping Black students

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Jaiden Lovelace struggled with behavioral issues in middle school, often getting into trouble and affecting his grades.

But today, the 14-year-old from South Elgin, who dreams of playing football in the NFL some day, is focused on graduating from South Elgin High School.

It’s why he joined Brothers Rise Up, a leadership program for Black male students in third-grade through high school within Elgin Area School District U-46. It helps monitor and improve students’ academic performance, attendance and behavior, and offers curriculum for character building, social skills, leadership and career development.

“I get a lot of emotional support and it’s a place that we can be open and talk,” Jaiden said of his interactions with peers in the group last year.

Brothers Rise Up and a sister program primarily for Black girls — Living Elegantly Ambitiously and Dauntlessly (LEAD) — provide enrichment, mentoring and support. LEAD helps girls in fifth through eighth grades develop self-esteem, cultural awareness, leadership, and conflict resolution skills.

U-46 leaders plan to expand both programs to empower Black students, particularly those struggling in school, in light of a national awakening about racial injustice and Black Lives Matter protests stemming from police brutality.

Black students comprise 6% of the district’s 37,241 students. District officials also are creating a new African American student leadership group for U-46’s five high schools and Dream Academy. Its purpose is giving Black students a voice, valuing their experiences and perspectives, and advocating for Black history, culture and civil rights struggles being taught more widely.

Black student leaders hosted a community forum last fall reflecting on equity and race. It was part of the U-46’s response to an equity survey, in which only 13% of students said they engage in important conversations about race at school. Brothers Rise Up started in 2019 serving 115 students across 11 U-46 schools. It now serves 130 mostly African American boys in 17 schools through weekly meetings, said Jim Cook, a dean’s assistant at Kenyon Woods Middle School and CEO and founder of Midwest Sports Academy.

“My goal is to make sure that we have resources for young men … and be able to help them reach their goals,” said Cook, who started the program. “They do not have to settle for less. They always can strive to be better and just because of the environment you’re in, that doesn’t mean that’s the person you’re going to end up being.”

When not constrained by the coronavirus pandemic, students participate in visits to colleges and local businesses, are paired with community mentors, and hear from speakers who are corporate leaders and local entrepreneurs. Students graduating from the program mentor younger elementary students, Cook said.

LEAD, which started in 2014 at Ellis Middle School in Elgin, has grown to serve 150 girls across eight U-46 schools — three elementary and five middle schools — during the 2019-20 school year. This year, participation dipped to 40 students due to pandemic restrictions, but officials expect it to bounce back, and aim to expand the program to more schools.

“Our goal is to help young ladies be the best they can be, helping them with leadership skills, presentation skills, self confidence, communication, conflict resolution, health,” said Jocelyn Ashford Yarbrough, a U-46 paraeducator and LEAD program coordinator. “We talk about relationships. We talk about making good decisions. And we really talk about what it means to live elegantly, ambitiously and dauntlessly and how they can apply that to their everyday lives.”

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January 11, 2021 at 05:37AM

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