Metro-East News

Education the focus of Racial Harmony panel

A panel that featured school administrators and students shared innovations that have worked in their local schools as well as areas that need improvement during a discussion presented by the Center for Racial Harmony and hosted by Belleville West High School Thursday night.

The meeting was the Center’s third in a six-part series called “All Lives Matter.”

Belleville East High School senior Arkayla Tenney-Howard, who plans to attend Kent State University this fall, mimicked the Center for Racial Harmony itself, forming the school’s Racial Harmony Club.

“Our school has definitely embraced the Racial Harmony Club since it started,” she said.

But a problem Tenney-Howard noticed was both broad and local: Aside from pop stars and professional athletes, minority youth have too few positive role models. She said the school needs to hire more teachers and administrators of color.

“I want the club to have more role models,” she said. “The school needs to show students that minorities are doing great things.”

According to Devon Horton, assistant superintendent at East St. Louis District 189, great things are happening in East St. Louis.

He instituted a program where seniors had to apply to five colleges, apply for two scholarship, do two community service projects and complete their financial aid paperwork before being eligible to participate in senior activities.

The results of the strict policy were astounding, Horton said. Ninety-seven percent of East St. Louis High’s class of 2015 has been accepted to either a two-year college, a four-year college or the military. Last year’s seniors received $343,000 in scholarship money, he said. This year, the class of 2015 has amassed around $4.5 million.

“These are success stories,” Horton said. “When you set expectations, set the structure and hold them accountable, sky’s the limit. We’re changing things.”

Althoff Catholic High School student Sarah Placke is changing things, too.

The senior who’s headed to Indiana State University in the fall said there was a disconnect in the school between students and the teaching and administrative staff. So she piloted a program that opened regular channels of communication between all parties involved to discuss school policies, disciplinary measures and school activities.

“By doing that, the students are able to have a voice. We are able to put our opinions in, which makes us more a part of the school,” Placke said. “I think what’s really important is to have that discussion between the administration and the students so it’s not so scary whenever we’re around them.”

The event in particular—and Racial Harmony’s mission in general—was one of a kind, according to Dr. Gabrielle Schwemmer, the director of school improvement at the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education. She said she wished more groups did more outreach into all the area’s communities.

“I think it’s imperative, and I think Racial Harmony is the only group like this that holds these forums,” she said. “I think we need to get the word out. Every Racial Harmony event I’ve attended, you get to see students that speak like this and you get to hear how they’re feeling. I think if we did this more often, we would have more people come to the table to try to help solve some of these issues.”

“Education is extremely important because my children, your children, our children are going to have to coexist in this society together. It is the solution to our poverty crisis,” Schwemmer added. “Without education, they won’t find jobs, we’ll continue with the high unemployment rates that we have, so it’s essential to get that education so they don’t fall into that.”