(This post originally appeared at “Georgian Educator” a blog by Rebekah Morris, Teacher at Cross Keys High School and community advocate. You can see the original blog post here.)
Exciting things happen when you combine the intellectual power of fifteen teenage girls. Last weekend, students from Pinckneyville Middle School, Summerour Middle School, and Cross Keys High School joined forces at Mi Pilon, a Caribbean restaurant in Norcross, Georgia, to share ideas and successes from the past year as it regards their community engagement projects.
We hope that these individual groups will begin to form a strong coalition of students along Buford Highway to continue to transform and empower their respective, vibrant communities. Here is a taste of what these small groups are already doing to shape their schools and neighborhoods.
STEM Chicas (Pinckneyville MS)
Currently at the Gwinnett County middle school, students are working on a variety of initiatives as a part of STEM Chicas (an after-school club at PMS), including parent engagement.
At Pinckneyville, the majority of students are Latinx, and many of the students’ parents don’t speak English very fluently; however, the school doesn’t provide translation services for parents (even though Gwinnett County Public Schools provides translations for district-wide news and meetings).
This means that when parents come up to the school, parents aren’t able to speak with teachers or administrators without their child translating for them. When the school holds PTA meetings, Spanish-language speakers cannot participate. When the school sends home newsletters or announcements, the parents have to ask their kids to read the letter to them.
STEM Chicas is trying to change that.
With help from a faculty sponsor who has been trying to address this issue for over two years, these teenage girls are going into the communities with surveys that they have created (with the assistance of local community and sustainable foods advocate Karla Casas Blaginin).
The survey includes questions like, “Do you attend school-related meetings? If no, why not?” or “What would make you feel more comfortable at school meetings?” or “Would you be more involved with your child’s education if there were translation services?” After the students evaluate the data from the surveys, they will be presenting their findings to the school principal and administrative team, hoping to show ways to improve parental involvement.
Mexican Fruit Cup Project (Summerour MS)
Students from Summerour Middle School (another middle school in the Norcross Cluster) didn’t realize that their summer learning would result in real change for their school district. Spurred on by their mothers and by the dedication of Blaginin, the girls decided that they were going to figure out how to improve the food offered by their cafeteria by combining the wisdom of their culture with elements of biology and basic deliciousness.
An article from Norcross News (February 2017 p. 15) sums it up nicely:
“Last summer, among the many vendors at the new Norcross Community Market, stood a very special tent run by four students from Summerour Middle School. Concerned that the current fruit offerings at their school cafeteria were going uneaten and ending up in the trash, the students gathered facts and came up with a potential alternative, Mexican Fruit Cups (sliced fresh fruit sprinkled with lime and chili powder.)
With the blessing of the Georgia Farmers Market Association, they set up a display at the market to share their project with the public. The students got hundreds of signatures on two petitions, one asking their school to consider serving Mexican Fruit Cups and a second asking for support in addressing food waste in their cafeteria.
In January two of the students, Caroline and Ashley Flores, got the chance to present their findings and hand over the petitions to Summerour Middle School principal Dorothy Parker-Jarrett…
Karla Blaginin, Principle Analyst at Merkata LLC who was contracted to evaluate the new Norcross Community Market, followed the students project through the summer and spoke on their behalf during the January presentation at Summerour Middle School.”
Recently, the girls discovered that not only had they effected change in their local middle school, but they had created change across all of Gwinnett County Public Schools as well! After grabbing the attention of the nutritionist for GCPS, Mexican Fruit Cups were rolled out to every school in the county on Tuesday, March 14.
Unify BuHi (Cross Keys HS)
Many of you know about this group of students that have been working to unify and improve the community along the Buford Highway corridor. These students began working on this group as a class project, but when the school year ended, the kids just couldn’t see our work ending along with it.
They began a Guerilla Gardening tactical urbanism initiative last summer, during which they planted small gardens along Buford Highway. Throughout their time in Unify BuHi, these students have presented at numerous city council meetings, comprehensive city planning workshops, and community exhibits in the cities of Brookhaven, Chamblee, and Doraville.
But their work doesn’t stop there. In order to engage the families of residents living in apartment complexes, these students helped birth Los Vecinos de Buford Highway, a completely unique organization which seeks to unite the voices of residents who often not a part of a broader civic organization. Several of the girls helped lead the planning team as we brainstormed different ways to invite residents to participate in regular meetings.
Since January 2017, Los Vecinos has launched at two different apartment complexes (Huntington Station in Chamblee and Park Towne North in Brookhaven) and this Thursday we launch at Foxwood Apartments in Doraville. Students have played an integral role in setting up small potluck dinners at individual apartments, and they have also been able to invite parents and family members to host these events.
Not only are these students engaging public officials and neighborhood leaders in order to effect change, they are also emerging as leaders within their own community, inspiring their peers and neighbors to become involved in the ever-changing landscape of Buford Highway.
These three groups of students (STEM Chicas, MexFC, and Unify BuHi) aren’t just succeeding in their academic work — they’re breaking down the boundaries between school and the “real world,” they’re developing lasting relationships with individuals serving as mentors, and they’re taking ownership of their respective communities in powerful ways.
Want to learn more? Email Karla at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out ways you can partner with them!