Nine girls fidgeted as they waited for the Friday R.I.S.E. meeting to begin on a biting day in late November.
The group of girls at Benton Elementary School gets together weekly to talk about ways to define respect for themselves and others.
Their goal for the day: build their own behavior plans. They sat three to a table and opened their sack lunches – peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, milk and Goldfish crackers.
While they ate, Cathy Cox explained that the floor was hers; the girls could not speak unless they were called on.
Cox reviewed the themes the girls had studied in the past week, then asked them to list some goals for themselves.
“I want ‘I can’ and ‘This means’ statements,” Cox said.
She had their full attention, wielding an encouraging smile one minute and, the next, a look that would make you want to duck under the table.
That combination of support and command is the key to R.I.S.E., a special group for third- through fifth-grade girls at Benton Elementary in Columbia. R.I.S.E. stands for Respecting Individual Style and Expression.
Cox, the home school communicator there, created the group last year in response to a culture of cliques and gossip that was forming among girls on the playground.
The name of the group was inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” which Cox said speaks to her mission of uniting girls at Benton.
She identified a few girls who seemed to be struggling with respect issues and, with permission from their parents, invited them to join a weekly discussion group.
Those girls then invited others who they thought needed help and designated peer leaders to help them identify negative behaviors and develop alternatives.
“R.I.S.E. gives girls an avenue to voice their opinions and concerns that they deal with and are worried about in a comfortable way,” said Tami Ensor, Benton’s assistant to the principal. “It gives them someone to guide them through some of the choices and decisions that they need to make.”
Cox attended Benton herself as a girl so knows the world its students live in. She is married with four children of her own, ranging from college age to a toddler, and has a degree in music education.
Now she’s working online to earn a bachelor’s degree in Christian studies and biblical theology from Grand Canyon University in Arizona and hopes to someday be a pastor.
She became home school communicator at Benton in 2003. The position was originally created in the late 1960s when Columbia schools were being desegregated. Each communicator worked to ease the transition for African-American students into what had been all-white schools.
Cox now approaches the job as something of a social worker; she helps families deal with socio-economic problems, homelessness and getting access to food, clothing and utilities.
“Cathy provides support in many different ways,” Ensor said. “She helps people find services they may need. She provides transportation and makes home visits to teachers and families. She is an important part of our Benton family.”
The majority of students at Benton are African-American, Cox says. As many as 85 percent come from low-income homes that qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. And so far, all of the girls in R.I.S.E. have been African-American.
“The reason that I deal primarily with black girls is because I am one,” Cox said. “I look at issues that pertain to their culture. Some teachers ask me ‘how come you can talk to so and so, and I can’t?’ I tell them, they see me as one of them, as a mother figure. I have also worked to gain their respect, while at the same time we can laugh and joke a lot.”
In R.I.S.E., the girls learn how to compromise to save friendships that may be going through a hard time. They are allowed to say they don’t like the way others are acting, but they have to offer solutions, Cox said.
“This past week we talked about bullying, cliques, character building and traits like empathy, respect and integrity,” Cox said at the November meeting.
Destiny Henderson, 11, was the first girl chosen to share her goal using “I can” and “This means” language.
“I can be kind to kids,” Destiny read. “This means that I will be nice to them.”
“Real quick, Destiny, what is being nice to them?” Cox urged. “What does being nice look like?”
“It looks like you’re like helping them out if they fall and if they are having trouble with something you can probably help them out with that.”
“What if you run into this problem, Destiny, because sometimes this can be a problem for you: ‘I don’t want you to be nice to me. As a matter-of-fact, I don’t want you to have anything to do with me. I don’t want you to talk to me, I don’t want you to play with me, I just want you to leave me alone.’ What happens if that happens to you?”
“I’ll just leave that person alone and find somebody else.”
Cox continued to draw out Destiny’s goal, using it as a teaching tool.
“Because perhaps they’re having a bad day,” Cox counseled. “Remember we talked about that paradigm. We don’t know what is going on inside their world. … Sometimes being nice to a person doesn’t just mean acting nicely toward them; sometimes it means just means leaving them alone.”
Wayniqua Sledd, 11, shared her goal next.
“I can fix my attitude,” she read. “This means that I can be respectful.”
“How else can you fix your attitude though, Wayniqua?” Cox asked. “Because I can be respectful when my teacher is looking at me, but the minute she turns around it’s … .” She rolled her eyes in a dramatic fashion.
“Roll yo’ eyes,” a few of the girls said.
“Roll yo’ eyes,” Cox echoed back. “Being respectful is what happens because the attitude has been fixed. Fixing the attitude has a lot do with just Wayniqua on the inside deciding ‘I’m not gonna be mad about that,’ or ‘I’m just not gonna let that get to me’ or maybe it is not somebody else that really has the problem. Perhaps it is Wayniqua that is having the problem today.”
Step above this
In the year she’s been running the program, Cox has formed special bonds with her students. Many come to her to talk about problems at home, misunderstandings with teachers and other issues.
When Cox has to discipline the R.I.S.E. members, a look or simple work usually does the trick.
“R.I.S.E. took on a dual meaning,” she said. “Initially it just stood for the acronym. But the second meaning, and kind of the secret meaning was, ‘OK, step above this. You made a poor choice. Get up, dust yourself off, and go on.’”
The girls who have been involved have come to see it as a privilege.
“It is fun and, like, we can talk about problems that we have about boys and teachers or anything that we need, like how we are feeling and stuff,” said 11-year-old Kaizjcha Patrick-Williams.
“We learned that if a teacher is being disrespectful or something, we can come and tell Mrs. Cox, and she takes care of us, and she tells us what do to and what not to do,” Wayniqua said.
Cox is supportive of the girls but also tries to be a role model and guide for them, Ensor said. “She is a person that holds them accountable in a respectful and caring way.”
Rewards and consequences
Time at the November meeting was running out, so Cox collected the behavior plans and told the girls she would meet with each of them in the next week.
She ended the meeting by having the girls suggest rewards for following their goals and consequences for poor behavior. Cox laughed as she rejected the idea of limo rides as a reward. But she did promise a pizza party at the end of the year if girls kept up their goals.
“The next part is not so happy,” Cox said, turning to consequences. She listed some possibilities: losing recess, letters to parents and the dreaded phone call to parents. That last elicited a loud “NO!” from the girls.
“Who is going to write the letters? Who is going to make the phone calls?” Cox asked.
“You!” the girls answered.
“Listen,” Cox said. “I will not make phone calls and I will not write letters for your inappropriate choices and let me tell you why: because you are old enough to accept responsibility for your own actions. "