Program teaches black history, improves students’ social skills

Wednesday, February 15, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:57 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

At least 20 fifth-graders energetically made their way back to their classroom and put their coats in the assigned closet. Chatter filled the room as they thumped and thudded away at cleaning their tables, limbs flailed as the students switched off their computers and giggles erupted while they covered their keyboards.

At the front of the room, Sky Jimenez waited patiently for the class to give her their attention. This was the day that the students of Parkade Elementary School got an exclusive slice of Black History Month. It was not long before the students quieted down and turned to Jimenez.

Starting in mid-January and continuing every Thursday since, Jimenez has visited the three fifth-grade classrooms at the school. She taught them about black history and good manners, and she gave them a quick crash course in social skills, to prepare the class for a job-shadowing experience later in the month. The lessons end in mid-February and by then the 10- and 11-year-old students will be coached and ready to spend two hours with a member of the African-American community sometime at the end of the month.

“The mentoring program is four-fold,” Jimenez said. “First, to honor African-Americans in the community and their contributions; second, to connect kids with great role models; third, to teach kids about career options; and finally, we teach them basic social skills.”

Jimenez started the program 11 years ago. Spurred on by a series of interviews conducted on middle and high school students, she was dismayed to find that most were not aware of prominent black figures in the community, and even fewer were able to identify with positive images of black people in Columbia. Though Jimenez retired from her position as counselor at Parkade in November 2005, she plans to continue running the program indefinitely.

Jimenez has a list of past mentors she’s gathered over the years. Once they’ve participated, they are anxious to do it again.

“They say ‘Please call me, please use me again.’ They’re hooked,” Jimenez said.

She and the teachers match students not by what they want to be when they grow up — the community is not big enough for that — but by their likes, dislikes, skills and even personalities. They also try to pair them with mentors that will “broaden their horizons.”

In the past, some students were initially unhappy with the mentor they were assigned, but their attitudes always changed after the job shadowing.

“The point is be open,” Jimenez said. “I’ve never had someone come back upset.”

A week or so after the job-shadowing day, Columbia College will host a luncheon for the students and their mentors. This year, the guest speaker will be UM System President Elson Floyd. The speaker is usually a successful black person the students would be familiar with, Jimenez said. They give a relatively short speech — “just 10 minutes, because we’re talking about fifth-graders here” — about what kind of obstacles they have overcome and how they have found success.

To conclude the celebration, everyone sings “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem, which the students practice every week during the sessions.

“The whole program is inspirational, and by the end, everyone is touched and teary-eyed,” she said.

Jimenez noticed great changes in the students after they job shadow. Before they go, “they are terrified,” she said. When they return, “they are changed people. They have confidence, poise. They’re excited. It’s so cool to watch.”

Jimenez referenced studies that show a positive impact on kids that spend 10 minutes a week with “an adult who cares.”

“The two hours these adults give make a huge difference on the rest of the kids’ lives,” she said.

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