North High program improves grades, reduces violence among girlsby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
A mentoring program at North High School in Minneapolis is making a difference, according to school administrators. They say since Girls in Action started at the beginning of the school year, they've seen improvements in the grades and attendance in the young women. They also say fights and other behavior problems among girls at the school in general have declined.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Soon, the hallway outside of North High School's auditorium will be filled with students. Dr. Verna Cornelia Price, the creator of Girls in Action program, is overseeing the set-up of about 10 display tables that will be in view of passers-by. On the tables, will be large cardboard displays of pictures and information about service projects performed by the girls.
Price offers a toothy smile and bubbly greeting to just about everyone she sees. But she gets serious when she explains why some high school girls have behavior problems.
Price did her doctoral dissertation about black student achievement in Minneapolis Public Schools. About 10 years ago, she started coming to North High School to help the school address violence and bad grades among some of the girls.
"They live in this world where they don't want to be disrespected and what they're really fighting for is they want someone to know that they're important," says Price. "They want someone to say that they're loved and someone to say they're smart. So they're fighting for this self-image."
Price developed a series of briefly successful short-term efforts but discovered that her work needed to be more constant and structured in order to be effective. That gave rise to Girls in Action. About 125 girls signed up. The majority of whom are African-American. About 20 percent are Hmong.
The program started in September of last year. And Price says the results were almost immediate.
"By December, we could count on our hand how many girls were in fights in the school. The violence rate, the fighting rate, the violence rate has decreased in this school by 50 percent, suspensions by 75 percent," she says. "Grades are up. Attendance is up. If you talk to the principals, they'll tell you that Girls in Action has changed their school."
Girls in Action offers leadership training, career coaching and role modeling through interaction with women mentors. The program keeps the girls "in action" through a series of hands-on activities such as field trips and service-learning projects. On one project, a group of girls organized a youth spoken word performance at a local coffee shop.
Price says most girls have strong leadership qualities. She says sometimes trouble can arise if the girls don't have an outlet for that energy. She's seen clashes occur when freshman girls try to establish themselves as the older girls try to enforce the pecking order.
"Well, you're the youngest, so everybody just runs over you," says Shauneisha Hartwell, a member of Girls in Action and a sophomore.
She says she wished Girls in Action was at North High last year. It was tough being a freshman. Hartwell says she doesn't think there's a widespread behavior problem among the girls at her school -- just a few bad apples who instigate the trouble. One day, Hartwell says one of those girls pushed her buttons and she got into a fight.
"It carried over from weeks and weeks and weeks," says Hartwell. "And it was like, 'you're not going to be able to keep putting your hands on me.' So that was the last straw. But if I could have changed it. I would have. I don't like violence. It's just not me."
Hartwell says the girls of Girls in Action get along well, regardless of their grade level or ethnic background. One of the things Hartwell likes most about Girls in Action is getting to know the mentors. The women who volunteer their time with the girls come from both for-profit and non-profit corporations. Hartwell says the mentors listen to the girls and they offer good advice, too.
"With school -- just do your work, focus and you'll make it. Just stuff like that, stuff that you have to know to get through college and make it. And that's just really all they tell us. They basically tell us all the stuff my mom tells me," she says. "But now I guess I listen because when my mom is telling me it's like just, 'whatever.' But then I hear it from five other people -- so it's like 'OK maybe I should start listening, because it makes sense.'"
School officials say they're seeing more than just improvements in the grades and attendance among the girls. North High vice-principal Brian Bass says the girls are becoming more self-confident. And he says that's having a residual effect on some of the boys, too.
"When young women have that self-esteem and that confidence and that respect for themselves then young men tend to understand that they can't come at them in a disrespectful manner, that's inappropriate," says Bass. "So it's eased a lot of tension that we've had."
Girls in Action has inspired a similar boys group. Dr. Verna Price says plans are in the works to expand to other schools. Next year, she will take the program to Edison and Roosevelt High Schools.