A 'village' of support for African American Academy

May was the month of anniversaries for the African American Academy on Beacon Hill. It marked the 50th year of the Greater Seattle chapter of The Links, a predominantly African American women's organization that volunteers in the community, and in 2001 voted to adopt the African American Academy as part of its Adopt a School Initiative. The Links has 274 chapters across the country, including three international chapters. The Links has four program committees dealing with the arts, international issues, civic involvement and services to youth. In adopting the Academy, Liz Thomas, Seattle chapter president from 2001-03 explained, all four of those facets have to find their way into the programming The Links does at the Academy.

The Links is an active organization at the Academy. It runs an All Star program that awards computers and other prizes to top students; a Teacher Appreciation Day; and the Audubon Day at the Washington Park Arboretum for fifth-grade scholars, among other programs. John James Audubon was of African descent-his mother was Haitian Creole-and the fifth graders write a research paper on him for an essay contest run by The Links. They are also taught by Audubon Society naturalists once a week for the whole year until Audobon Day at the Arboretum, where they go on a guided tour of the wetlands. The African American Academy has wetlands on the school property as well.

Thomas is amazed at the Audubon program, particularly at what the students observe at the arboretum. "For some reason it's like nature opens up and is right there for these students," Thomas said.

This past month Friends of the African American Academy (FOAAA), an advocacy and communication organization that meets monthly, celebrated three years since its founding. When Gayle Johnson founded FOAAA, she made an inventory of what organizations were already present in the school and "looked up where the gaps were." New groups that came in and ones that had been around awhile were communicating for the first time. "FOAAA provided a forum for people in the school to come together to talk about what they're doing," Johnson said.

FOAAA looks for organizations to provide academic support or other educational enrichment. A variety of organizations are now involved at the African American Academy: African American fraternities and sororities; the Urban League; Black Child Development Institute, which tutors children in math; Tabor 100, an African American men's institute, which provides leadership training; and The Links, to name a few.

When FOAAA began it was just a support group. Today it is moving towards becoming a group that mediates issues at the Academy.

"Part of African heritage is, it's a village," Johnson said. "In a village you bring things to a council and it is discussed there and debated there and resolved there."

Current challenges facing FOAAA include the issues concerning upper grade levels: keeping kids engaged in learning, raising test scores and maintaining discipline.

"We have so many programs for elementary students...now there needs to be a focus on the middle school," Johnson said. Despite its strong role at the Academy, FOAAA does not decide matters of curriculum.

Those matters are implemented by teachers like Grace Beeler, one of the three fifth-grade teachers whose scholars participated in the Audubon program. The May 17 anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education was very much a history lesson for Beeler's scholars.

"Scholars can only go so far because it's such a removed thing from their personal experience," Beeler said. "They don't know about the struggle unless we bring it to them."

There wasn't much comparison made between the kind of education the scholars are receiving at the Academy, where the student population is 85 percent African American, and that of students at other schools.

"We don't spend a lot of time focusing on 'Why are we here?' " Beeler said, noting that that conversation might come up later on for those scholars.

In Beeler's class, however, there is discussion about the school's uniqueness. There is a large African American staff and students seem to enjoy the focus of the school.

"We can study black history any time of the year," Beeler noted. "It's all around them, all around them."

And what becomes clear from conversations is that what the African American Academy scholars also have all around them are caring, involved adults. Ramona Goncalves is one of these. Goncalves is the GEAR UP (Gain Early Awareness Readiness Undergrad Program) coordinator for the African American Academy. GEAR UP runs programs at nine Seattle schools for at-risk or inner-city youth, preparing middle and high school students for the next phase of their academic careers.

Goncalves is in charge of preparing all of the Academy's eighth graders for high school. She acts as their counselor and guide-literally. She likes to take groups of the scholars to other middle schools, so they can better see what the more diverse high schools they will be entering look like, and so they can see what other environments middle school students learn in. Though Goncalves estimates that half of the scholars have transferred to the African American Academy from other schools, one of the lessons to learn from the middle school visits can probably never be overstated. "There are a whole lot of other cultures out there," Goncalves said. "And you have to respect each one."

Goncalves believes that this year's eighth grade class has had a particularly hard time of it, for a variety of reasons, including a high rate of teacher turnover in the last few years. Nonetheless she believes this class is "one of the brightest the Academy has ever had." She thinks that most of the 62 members of the graduating class are focused on high school and seriously making academic plans. And their parents are serious, too.

"Fifty percent of the middle school parents have my home phone number," Goncalves said. But she doesn't mind that her job overflows into other parts of her life.

"If these guys are going to be our leaders in the future," Goncalves explained, "I want to do what I can now."å[[In-content Ad]]