COLUMBIA — Last year, Mahogany Thomas, then a sophomore at Rock Bridge High School, went to the national conference of the Minority Student Achievement Network. She had a great time, not only touring New York City but also learning how she could have an effect in her own school district.
Starting Wednesday, Thomas is one of 25 students from Rock Bridge, Hickman and Douglass high schools hosting this year's national conference. About 200 students and chaperones from across the country will meet through Saturday at the Holiday Inn Executive Center.
Thomas is excited. "I hope to create the same drive and the same amount of momentum in other students as it created in me," she said.
The goal of the conference, in its 12th year, is to help students find ways to bridge the academic achievement gaps that continue to exist between white and minority students in the U.S., said Madeline Hafner, executive director of the network.
Hafner said that during the conference, students:
- Network with students from other, similar districts.
- Talk about the influences and barriers to academic success students of color face.
- Work with one another to create plans of action to implement in their home districts.
Students will report on their action plans during the conference and, when they get home, present their ideas to their respective school boards, Hafner said.
The students are high school sophomores, juniors and seniors from 18 school districts in 11 states who were selected by their districts to be representatives at the conference, she said.
“They’re high achievers who have been recognized by their schools, who have already made some really substantial changes in their districts,” Hafner said.
All of the Columbia students are part of the MAC Scholars program, which aims to get minority students involved and engaged in their academic success, said Jay Wiltshire, who coordinates MAC Scholars for the district.
The MAC Scholars came up with this year's theme, “Defy the Stats by Defining Yourself: Desafía las estadísticas. Definiéndote a ti mismo,” and will serve as student liaisons, lead icebreaker activities and introduce keynote speakers, he said.
“It really is a student-driven conference,” Wiltshire said.
Students will hear first-hand accounts from university students, educators, professionals, entrepreneurs and community leaders about what it takes to succeed in higher education and pursue their life goals, said Jessie Adolph, an English teacher at Rock Bridge who has been involved with MAC Scholars for six years.
“It’s great because then they’re not only hearing about it from our perspective, they’re hearing it from their peers,” Adolph said. “It’s great to see this program empowering students to reach out not only their generation, but to the generation behind them."
The conference is being held in Columbia in part at the invitation of Superintendent Chris Belcher, who serves on the governing board for the Minority Student Achievement Network. Another reason is the support that MAC Scholars has received from the community and the district, Hafner said.
Tiauna Hickem, a junior at Douglass, said it's important for her to be involved in the conference because she gets to interact with other kids and hear their stories — "how they've gotten through some problems and how they're successful in school."
"For me, being a minority," Hickem said, "it's kind of important for me to shine through and show that I can be successful and finish school and become someone important."