Terranisha’s Story: Kids, Advocacy and Elev8
Terranisha Douglas addresses state legislators about school safety.
“Everyone on the bus was laughing and celebrating – we had done a great job. And then the gunshots came out of nowhere. I was scared. I just dropped to the floor and stayed there until the bus started moving.”
Terranisha Douglas, then an eighth grader at Perspectives Middle Academy, recounts her travel back from a field trip in May of 2010. Ironically, she and her classmates had gone to the State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, to speak with legislators about the importance of their school’s Elev8 programme – particularly in keeping students safe.
‘We’re Sick of This Violence’
Tenisha Jones, the Elev8 Project Manager at Perspectives, offers her own memory of the field trip, the shoot-out and its aftermath:
Tenisha Jones, Elev8 Project Manager at Perspectives Middle School.
“Yet, on the way back from Springfield on that sunny spring day, the school bus was at a stop sign, and all of a sudden we heard gunfire everywhere! We found ourselves in the middle of a gang shoot-out, three blocks from the school, on Chicago’s South Side.
“My first reaction was to stand up to make sure the kids were down in their seats. The bus moved again, and when I made sure all the kids were safe, I started calling parents. When we got back to the school, we started strategising.
“The kids’ reactions were, ‘We’re sick of this violence.’ I wanted the students to see the shooting as a learning opportunity, and to do something as a result of this experience. So the students prepared themselves to talk about how gun violence affects their lives. Ten days later, 13 students marched from Perspectives up to the office of our local State Senator, Jacqueline Collins, with whom they had also spoken in Springfield. They even challenged her – ‘What are you doing about gun violence, and what are you doing to make sure we are safe?’”
‘If I Have a Voice, I Can Always Make a Change’
Terranisha has graduated from the Elev8 programme and is now a high school freshman at Perspectives Leadership Academy with plans to attend college. She continues to return to the middle school to mentor current Elev8 participants. Terranisha often thinks about the Springfield trip and her resulting advocacy:
“When I think of the shooting, I feel grateful: lots of kids aren’t living past 18, but I had a great after-school programme.
“I never thought I’d be doing any of this. I wasn’t going to join any programmes in my school, but when I found out about Elev8, I felt great. When we went to Senator Collins’ office, it felt good that somebody was willing to listen to kids who make a difference in this neighbourhood. Since the meeting, I’ve talked to other important people about making changes in our neighbourhood.
“It gives me hope to know that as a student I have a voice, and if I have a voice, I can always make a change. One thing that makes me upset is when kids don’t use their voices. Some people feel that they don’t have the right to speak, and I tell them that, indeed, it is their right – and their responsibility.
“I love being an advocate for kids. This is what I want to be when I get out of college. I visited the University of Chicago on an Elev8 field trip and I asked people about all the majors. You can make your own major there, and ‘Kids and Advocacy’ is a major I want to start!”
Elev8 brings together schools, community-based organisations, health providers, philanthropy and parents to improve educational, social and economic outcomes for middle school students and their families. Its flexible, full-service community school model focuses on middle-grade youth in underserved communities of colour in a total of 20 schools in Chicago; Baltimore, Maryland; New Mexico; and Oakland, California.
The Elev8 programme builds on core elements that research has clearly linked with student achievement and success:
- providing extended learning opportunities for students beyond the classroom and traditional school year
- ensuring children have access to high-quality, school-based health care
- meaningfully engaging parents and communities in schools.
Each programme is adapted to fit the specific needs of a participating school and community. The initiative also encourages students, families and partners to become active advocates for strengthening schools and addressing other important issues in their communities. As Tenisha Jones explains:
“Advocacy is telling a story about what is going on, and being able to represent all the voices of the story. Students need to know how to say what they need and what they want. Our kids need extra support to survive what we experienced. Elev8 seeks to address this very thing.”
Elev8 student leaders, and staff from Perspectives and Marquette Middle Schools and
Mikva Challenge’s Peace and Leadership Councils, meet with Illinois State Senator Jacqueline Collins (center).
In addition to student safety, Elev8 Chicago parents, students and community members advocate for academic achievement, age-appropriate school-based health care, social supports for families and community revitalisation. Three advocacy wins at the state level, as of November 2011, were:
- protected funds for out-of-school time services
- secured funding for school-based health care
- protected Illinois’ unique all-kids health insurance.
And Terranisha Douglas is doing well academically and beating the odds with goals of attending college, in a district where only one half of African-American students graduate from high school.