Theresa Maestas’ days at Clark Middle School once were stormy, even though she earned grades high enough to place her in the Junior Honor Society and UAA’s Leadership Fellows Juniors (LFJ).
“I was constantly getting in trouble and … not really thinking about the consequences,” said Theresa, who had to leave honor society and LFJ after being suspended for fighting.
UAA’s Terry Nelson — a College of Business & Public Policy associate professor who helms both UAA’s Leadership Fellows and Clark’s Leadership Fellows Juniors mentoring programs — offered Theresa a chance to re-enter the Juniors program if she delivered a speech during one of the group’s meetings.
She never gave the speech and kept getting in trouble, with a second and third suspension, Then, finally, Theresa had an epiphany: “That I can fight with words and not physically; help the innocent; be prepared for the law and one day help make these laws.”
When the program began recruiting eighth-graders for the Juniors, Theresa’s mother told Nelson about the sincere shift in her daughter. Nelson gave her another chance: “She’s come in and really led,” Nelson proudly said.
Theresa says she wants to fully engage in her education and be a good example for her younger siblings. “Just because I have made a couple of wrong choices doesn’t mean I go on doing wrong,” she said. “Instead, I learned [to] move on and look toward the future and the better.”
Patience, perseverance and dedication to students’ needs recently earned the Leadership Fellows Juniors partnership between UAA CBPP and Clark Middle School an Anchorage School District Spirit of Tomorrow Award, an honor bestowed on schools and businesses that develop strong relationships for the benefit of students. ASD has more than 600 business partnerships; seven received the award.
Award sponsors include Wells Fargo, NECA/IBEW, BP, Providence Health & Services, CIRI, GCI, Siemens, Sylvan Learning, and Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.
Creating a college-going culture
Students who attend Orah Dee Clark Middle School reside in the most culturally diverse census tract in the nation. Many Clark students face challenges, living in households earning less than $25,000 annually.
And, a significant number of Clark’s students have parents who either didn’t attend or didn’t finish college — lacking the experience a college-educated parent might have in helping their child prepare for the academic rigors of higher education and compile a résumé of leadership achievements necessary for getting into a good college and obtaining scholarship support.
The spark of Leadership Fellows Juniors ignited in the fall of 2014 during a discussion between Nelson and Clark’s principal, UAA alumna Cessilye Williams, about their desire to enrich the lives of middle school students like these, cultivating not only academic acumen but developing personal skills like decision making, public speaking, negotiations, etiquette, community service, time allocation and study tips — skills that would fully prepare them to be leaders and motivate them to succeed.
First, they helped students realize they could weave a college education into their plans for the future. An $850 grant from the UAA Center for Community Engagement and Learning helped launch the program.
Then, Nelson and Williams grew their partnership from an initial semester-long program into a year-spanning endeavor that would not only pique students’ interest in college, but provide guidance, mentors and leadership-development skills that would help them succeed in and beyond college.
Seventeen eighth-graders took part in the inaugural Leadership Fellows Juniors cohort in January 2015, attending six two-hour leadership-building skills classes, documenting their reflections in an e-Portfolio and completing an “Empty Bowls” community-engagement project benefiting Beans Café that spring. The first class of Juniors graduated that April alongside the CBPP Fellows, at CBPP’s Student Celebration.
Nelson and Williams then broadened the program, reaching out to younger students at Clark. They offered 10 2.5-hour sessions. Also, the program moved to UAA from Clark’s campus, so students could become familiar with a college setting.
One Leadership Fellows Juniors activity, public-speaking competition, included UAA students, alumni and community members tutoring the Juniors in public speaking, allowing the youths to confer briefly with mentors before preparing and delivering short speeches for a panel of judges about leadership themes like obstacles, integrity, community and challenges.
Leadership Fellows Juniors quickly attracted the attention and participation of faculty and staff at UAA’s College of Education, College of Health and CBPP’s Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department. This support grew into other UAA joint ventures at Clark: for example, the teens now can explore future careers in health care, via a UAA health professions academy, and learn coding via CBPP’s .coders program.
The program is still evolving, with Nelson and Williams implementing ideas for a second year: preparing students for academic and social challenges they’ll encounter in high school and college.
They received insight about this from an Anchorage school district educator who attended a CCEL Urban and Rural in Alaska session Nelson hosted.
“She said there’s almost a culture shock; you’re moving from middle school and now you’re into high school,” Nelson said. “They need some type of guidance. When you think that at East High School, they have over 2,000 students — a kid can get lost in that.”
A student panel is one of the ideas Nelson is considering, which would connect veteran Clark Leadership Fellows Juniors alumni who are already in high school with students who are just leaving the Leadership Fellows Juniors’ fold at Clark.
Northrim Bank helps support Leadership Fellows Juniors; it recently gave $10,000 to the program.
‘You will be the future leaders’
Both Williams and Nelson have received individual recognition for their work in and outside the UAA-Clark partnership.
The Alaska Association of Secondary School Principals named Williams its Principal of the Year in 2015, and, earlier this year, Williams won the 2017 Junior Achievement of Alaska Educator of the Year award at the Alaska Business Hall of Fame event.
And Nelson received the Outstanding UAA MBA Faculty Award in 2015 and 2016 as well as the 2016 Chancellor’s Excellence Award for Community Engagement for her role in the CBPP and Clark Middle School collaboration.
The work Williams and Nelson are doing is critical because too many Alaska students enter college underprepared academically, and might find themselves unable to cope with emotional and social struggles they encounter in a new environment.
Enriching students this early in their academic journeys enhances the probability they will get to college, stay in college and emerge from college with a degree that helps them access a career in Alaska.
Leadership Fellows Juniors is a partnership that shows promise in helping UAA as well, by moving it toward accomplishing core accreditation themes: student retention and student success.
“We are looking to those of you who took the initiative to apply for these UAA academies, and are willing to give up your Saturdays to be challenged and to learn, as you will be the future leaders serving our city and our state,” UAA Chancellor Tom Case told students at a Leadership Fellows Juniors event.
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, University of Alaska Anchorage