Metro-East News

Basketball legends, astronauts join students in ‘a new conversation’ at Mannie Jackson Center

Center for Humanities aims to help heal a divided world

Ed Hightower talks about the first year and future of the Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities in Edwardsville, IL.
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Ed Hightower talks about the first year and future of the Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities in Edwardsville, IL.

Stellar speakers, dedicated high school students and a focus on healing a divided world have been the priorities for the first year at the Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities in Edwardsville.

Celebrating just over a year in operation, the Mannie Jackson Center recently received a $100,000 donation from Gori Julian & Associates, an Edwardsville law firm that center director Edward Hightower said has been consistently supportive of youth programming and issues.

“This is not the first time that Randy Gori has demonstrated his commitment to young people of this area,” Hightower said. “This is a continuation of the outstanding commitment that he and his wife Beth demonstrate on an ongoing basis throughout Madison County.”

Hightower said the Goris go beyond “writing a check” and show up at functions, serve on committees and volunteer with the programs.

We are happy to support this initiative that encourages our youth to ‘think outside the box’ and consider how we must treat each other to exist and thrive as a society.

Randy Gori, founding partner of Gori Julian & Associates

“We are happy to support this initiative that encourages our youth to ‘think outside the box’ and consider how we must treat each other to exist and thrive as a society,” said Randy Gori, founding partner at the law firm. “The mission of the Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities is important work, so we encourage others to do what they can to keep conversations like this ongoing.”

Gori said the most recent election cycle was “very polarizing,” and the work the center is doing encourages “conversations that help mend those wounds.”

Mending the wounds and increasing conversation was the primary purpose of the center when it was conceived several years ago. Entrepreneur and alumni Mannie Jackson purchased the Lincoln School building in 2008 — the last segregated school building in Edwardsville, which Jackson had attended as a child. In 2012, he donated the building to Lewis & Clark Community College in Godfrey for renovation and development of the humanities center, along with another $200,000 endowment.

Hightower came on board as executive director after his retirement from 19 years as superintendent of Edwardsville District 7. The center officially launched in December 2015, with what Hightower described as a nostalgic open house with many former Lincoln students reminiscing about their time in the old school and the teachers who influenced their lives.

The first Mannie Jackson dinner featured retired Gen. Colin Powell as its guest speaker. The second dinner, set for March 30, will feature Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, retired as a six-time NBA most valuable player for the Los Angeles Lakers and 19-time NBA All-Star. Also appearing will be astronaut Leland Melvin, who flew two missions aboard the shuttle Atlantis and has logged 565 hours in space.

“It’s hard to believe that in a year’s time the Mannie Jackson Center has accomplished so much,” Hightower said.

But the primary focus for the first year has been “Conversations Toward a Brighter Future,” an initiative in local high schools to encourage young people to develop projects to improve their schools and communities. More than 200 students at 23 middle and high schools are participating — almost every school district in Madison County, Hightower said.

The students identify and research issues to create a plan with measurable, positive outcomes, and the projects then receive a $5,000 grant from the center to actually implement their plans, Hightower said.

“We see how these young people have developed, identified an issue or problem in their community or school district, and worked to improve relationships and communication,” Hightower said.

Some of the projects the students have been working on include:

▪  The students at Edwardsville High School created a “New Student Ambassador” program to pair up students new to the district with long-time students. They also established a student hotline, social media sites, rally days and more to make new students feel welcome and make new friends without being overwhelmed at one of the largest schools in the region.

▪  Granite City High School students worked on creating a “Ripple Effect of Attitude” to improve morale and positivity in the school. They worked through existing clubs and activities to create fun activities for positivity including scheduling a cafeteria mixer for students and teachers to sit together and talk and community events with family activities.

▪  Madison High School students created a program ROHCYP — “Relating to Others: Helping to Change Your Perspective.” Their proposal noted that of the 166 students at Madison High, 98 percent are low-income and 92 percent African-American. “Many of our students are bringing ‘home problems’ such as parenting, shelter, nutrition and security ... to school that are preventing them from being successful,” it noted. The students focused on after-school clubs beyond athletics, a family movie night, morning yoga, advisory self days to pursue non-academic interests in spare time at school, and a therapy support group for students facing problems with drug and alcohol abuse, family issues, teenage pregnancy and academics. The group is led by trained peers and supervised by school counselors.

▪  Collinsville Middle School launched the Pink Elephant Project: establishing activities that help students create better relationships within a diverse student body. Students pick a teacher of the month and teachers pick a student of the month. Social media and video segments were launched to focus on positive messages of encouragement; and students found performing good deeds toward others would be rewarded with a “Caught You Being Good” wristband.

▪  Alton High School established the “Bridge Program,” holding a monthly student lunch meeting where kids can discuss the school’s climate and how to improve it. For example: students discussed the use of headphones in hallways and classrooms, which led to new rules negotiated with teachers and students working together. Teachers began using “positive referrals” — reports on students doing “the right thing” rather than solely for disciplinary action. All students who received positive referrals were invited to an “All-School Sports Day.” Meanwhile, faculty members were trained in “restorative practices,” an alternative to traditional detention and in-school suspension to provide students with coaching and fostering respectful relationships rather than solely punitive discipline.

It’s hard to believe that in a year’s time the Mannie Jackson Center has accomplished so much.

Executive Director Ed Hightower

The Mannie Jackson Center has gained attention from leaders like U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, Hightower said.

“Sen. Durbin was fired up about this program, and said this is something that should be nationwide,” he said.

That ultimately is the goal, Hightower said: to take the “Conversation Toward a Brighter Future” beyond the metro-east region and serve as a model to other schools throughout the country.

Meanwhile, the center is bringing in former astronaut Leland Melvin to speak to students from Granite City, Madison and Venice on March 29. Co-sponsored by the Mannie Jackson Center and the regional office of the superintendent, Melvin will speak about staying focused, staying true to your dreams and never giving up. Hightower said Melvin’s priorities are heavy on science and mathematics, which is part of the center’s focus on increasing STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math.

The center also will bring in a full-time researcher this year to communicate the importance of water, including the water-quality catastrophe of Flint, Mich.

“These people were deprived of the essential element of life,” Hightower said. “You have to ask yourself the question, how could that be?”

The researcher will focus on public policy, working to get policymakers to understand the issues and strive to reduce inequality across the country, Hightower said.

In the meantime, site preparation has begun on the rest of the campus. An $81 million hotel and conference center is planned for the space adjacent to the old Lincoln School and a historic house along that block. Some buildings have been knocked down and land prepared, though construction has not yet begun. Hightower said there will be “a major announcement soon” regarding the project.

“(Jackson) is very motivated and committed to ensuring that his hometown continues to develop in a positive manner,” Hightower said.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald