The STAR Program, which serves African American students in Appleton and Menasha, is the recipient of a Game Changer grant from Madison-based Forward Community Investments (FCI).
The grant application was a student-led effort.
The Game Changer grant is intended for a program or organization in Wisconsin focused on racial equity. FCI awards a $3,000 grant each month. The unique thing about Game Changer is that the application process is very easy — just a one-page form and a video explaining the program.
When STAR Program leaders heard about the grant, they turned it over to the students.
“We read the description of what the grant was for and who qualifies and what they wanted to see, we immediately thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s STAR. I know its due like next week, but is there anybody who would be willing to tackle this to submit something,’” says STAR Opportunity Coordinator Dennetra Williams, who coordinates the program at Appleton North. “I didn’t have time to do it, so I said (to my students), ‘Hey, we have this opportunity, I believe in you guys, I know that you have this skill set, I know that you have that skill set, I know that you have this skill set. If you guys can be responsible to pull together your own cast and crew, write your script, and record this, I’ll submit it for you.’ And they did! And they won.”
STAR is a program of the Fox Valley Boys and Girls Club that aims to cut the graduation gap between black and white students in half by 2021.
“STAR stands for Scholars on Target to Achieve Results,” says program director Kayla McNamara. “It is, at its core, an academic engagement intervention that’s specifically focused on reducing, and potentially closing, the high school graduation gap that we see affecting African American and Black students in our community. STAR really is born of the acknowledgment of that issue, specifically as it relates to Menasha and Appleton school districts. It, unlike many other Boys and Girls Club programs, really was not something that our Club dreamed up. It was something that was identified as a problem by individuals in our community, specifically many community agencies kind of came to the table and said ‘hey, there’s something that needs to happen here.’”
The program came out of a “deep plunge” led by a ThedaCare community health team in 2015 that took a hard look at the challenges facing Black people and families in the Appleton area.
“From that plunge, they found different pieces that … were really troubling, and that led them to look at academic outcomes and how those outcomes are affecting families in our community, particularly African American families,” McNamara said. “From there, that group continued meeting, and Boys and Girls Club ended up getting brought into it.”
Other groups and institutions were brought to the table as well.
“Our community leaders that continue to stay connected to the work of STAR include African Heritage, Inc., many local colleges including Fox Valley Tech, UW Fox Valley, as well as Saint Norbert and Lawrence University. We also have United Way at the table, Paul Morgan from ThedaCare, as well as other committed individuals from the (school) districts,” McNamara says.
The program formally launched just over a year ago, and currently serves nearly 400 students at nine schools in Appleton and Menasha.
“Unlike another Boys and Girls Club Program that would be kids coming here (to the Boys and Girls Club) after school and serving them here, it really is a school-based initiative,” McNamara says. “With that unique element of having somebody (come from) outside of the school, who is also supervising it, gives us that independence and edge to be able push back on the academic system where needed to fight oppression and fight racism, because obviously we still do live in a time where different things do come up. I think minimally we’re dealing with invisible oppression.”
The program relies on one-on-one interactions between students and Opportunity Coordinators in the schools, as well as group activities like a recent overnight trip to UW-Oshkosh to get a taste of college life.
“As an Opportunity Coordinator, our role, basically is to meet with the student, one on one, to talk about academics, behavior, and attendance and as well the cultural pieces, like what it means to be black, encouraging them to accept their blackness, also exploring different opportunities,” says Laura Jones, the opportunity coordinator at Menasha High School and Wilson Middle School. “A regular day, a meeting, could be talking about, what does your grades look like right now, setting goals with the students, also if there are any barriers, that might prevent them from being academically successful, what can we do together as a unit to increase your grades, or attendance, and things like that. We also focus on family engagement as well. We are communicating with parents as often as we can to see there is anything the parents have any concerns about, as well as just updating them on different opportunities that we have for some of the students to participate in within the community. As long as we have a one touch with the kids throughout the week or every two weeks. Each kid needs a different level of intervention, some kids I’m seeing almost twice a week, or every two weeks, or I’m seeing a kid once a month. It just depends on that level of intervention that, that kid needs.”
It’s also important that these one-on-one interactions take place between students and someone who looks like them.
“In our schools the Opportunity Coordinators are some of the only people of color working as an adult in that school,” McNamara says. “There are some of our schools that Opportunity Coordinator may be the only African American or Black staff member in the building. That’s a lot of responsibility, and we are seeing a lot of great results from that. Our students say, for example, in their survey responses, how important it is to have someone that looks like them to talk to. It matters a lot to have somebody they know has been through some of what they are going through and that they can relate to.”
It can also make accepting assistance easier, Williams says.
“I think it feels a lot different hearing from another person that looks like you, ‘Hey honey, did you hear about the (food) pantry that we have upstairs, so when you’re in between food stamp days you can still access food.’ Versus hearing about it from a teacher with blonde hair and blue eyes. I think that they feel more judged and that they’re taking pity on them, instead of (being) there to support and help and understand,” she says.
McNamara cautions against thinking of the STAR students as all the same.
“I think it’s an important, as well, that we work with a really diverse group of students,” she says. “Some of students may be struggling, some of our students are straight A, college bound already. We work with students wherever they are at, just to be able to be their best selves. I think that’s a really important point, because at times I think that people feel that, depending on the group that you’re serving, we are serving all students that are struggling and that is absolutely not true. We have students of all different ability levels.”
“Realizing although they are a black student or identify as black, we are still a diverse group,” says Jones. “We still have a diverse group of students. We have students that came actually from Africa, who come here, or we have students that are bi-racial, mixed race, there are still different cultural differences within our group, although we do serve black, African American students.”
The program’s coordinators keep close track of the indicators of whether or not each student is on track to graduate, which include not only grades but also attendance, discipline referrals, and extra-curricular involvement.
In addition to just improving academic performance, the program also hopes to help students celebrate their identity.
“It’s changing what it means to be black,” McNamara says. “I think people have been given this impression of what that means, and there is too much focus on negative and not acknowledging all of the positive that is there and that has to do with the overall school culture. For example bringing in Black History Month, how is that being celebrated? I think, those things, we are seeing them improve, for example having Martin Luther King Jr. Day (celebrated in the school district for the first time).”
It’s not just about changing the way the students are thinking, though.
“Not only are we ensuring that families are getting connected and feeling that cultural comfort, here in the Fox Valley, but we’re also shifting the lens for educators. Giving them a different way to view our students,” says Williams. “I grew up in a two parent household, never missed a meal. My mother took us shopping every season for new clothes. We were homeowners. My mother owned several properties when I was a kid. When you’re dealing with a student who’s sitting before you, they just got put out in the dead of winter, they have no place to go. All they have are the clothes on their back. They have no idea how they’re going to have access to food or even shelter. Do you really think they care about missing an assignment? They’re more concerned about missing a meal. They’re more concerned about missing their pillow. I think that overall we as a program, I think we’re just trying to change the perception of our black youth and making sure they’re just seen like everyone else. Sometimes people will come to me and say, ‘I just don’t know how to teach Jemarius, I just don’t know. What am I supposed to do?’ You teach him the same way you teach Becky, that’s how. I mean they’re all kids, it doesn’t really matter, you just do the same thing.”