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Leaders working together make better ideas

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/14/18/26/Y1rv3.Em.138.jpeg|316
    DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Vance High mentor Vannida Thouk (right) reads to Nathaniel Alexander Elementary students (left to right, back row) Camya Fair, 6, Zaniya Johnson, 8, Daniyah Burton, 6, and (left to right, front row) Damaris Rodriguez, 6, and Makayla Jordan, 7, during a visit of Harding High mentors to Nathaniel Alexander Elementary.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/14/18/26/1j1pzm.Em.138.jpeg|316
    DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    James Martin Middle students Isha Zaghari, left, and Harding mentor Briana Smith lift a completed poster.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/14/18/26/YLTsV.Em.138.jpeg|322
    DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Vance mentor Briana Smith hugs James Martin Middle student Myla Leak as the mentors depart after a recent visit to the middle school.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/14/18/26/meliC.Em.138.jpeg|213
    DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    arding High mentor Joshua Velazquez works on reading with Nathaniel Alexander Elementary student Octavius Hair, 6.

The student leaders of Vance High and James Martin Middle are talking. They’re discussing how to recycle better. They’re talking about student art and helping the needy.

“We’re learning how we can make our voices be heard,” said eighth-grader Lemuel Gadson. “We have the chance to achieve greatness.”

The schools’ two leadership classes – 23 students from James Martin and 27 from Vance – have teamed up this year for the first time, in hopes of making positive differences. That means Vance leadership students visit James Martin’s leadership kids once a week to mentor them and work on projects.

They’re now collecting shoeboxes they’ll fill with toiletries, gloves, scarves and snacks for the homeless. To get help with donations, the students are writing letters to local companies and groups.

Lemuel is getting the word out while he anchors morning announcements, and the students plan on starting a phone tree to reach all parents about the effort.

MGR is a nonprofit that empowers youth to improve their communities, focusing on arts, environmental justice and health. MGR worked with Vance’s leadership class last year. Now that the two schools have partnered, it is working with James Martin as well.

With MGR’s environmental focus, many of the two leadership classes’ projects center on helping their schools become greener.

The leadership students plan to hold a recycled art contest and work with a company called TerraCycle, which offers programs for collecting and recycling typically discarded items such as chip bags, Lunchables trays and Elmer’s glue bottles.

“We waste a lot, like Styrofoam and milk cartons,” said Dustin Duong, an eighth-grader in James Martin’s leadership class. “We need to spread the word with what we can do with it instead of letting it sit in a landfill and rot.”

Other Vance leadership students are meeting once a week at Nathaniel Alexander Elementary, which is also down the street. Students are reading with first-graders to improve literacy and vocabulary.

The two schools have offered leadership classes for a few years, and students have to be recommended by teachers to be selected for the full-year class.

In leadership classes, students learn about public speaking, community involvement, conflict resolution, decision-making strategies, resume building and college and career preparation, said Audrey-Lee Bost, Vance’s leadership teacher.

Vance senior Amber-Lynn Cruz is leading the charge for working with TerraCycle. She said she wants programs set up at the three nearby schools (known as part of the Governor’s Village for their gubernatorial namesakes), so that recycling becomes second nature to elementary students by the time they reach middle and high school.

“There is so much more that ‘recycling’ means than putting something in blue bins,” she said.

Amber-Lynn has also written a book about the elementary-high school reading program and will hold an art contest at Nathaniel Alexander for illustrations. She plans to print the books on environmentally friendly paper, too.

The students involved in the leadership mentoring program – both the mentors and mentees – are loving the partnership, they said.

“The difference between teaching and guidance is we’re not holding their hands,” said Breanna Washington, a Vance senior. “They have wonderful, wonderful ideas.”

Dustin agreed that putting the two leadership classes together has been a good thing.

“We have a lot of good ideas, they have a lot of good ideas – and put them together, and we get great ideas,” he said.

Some middle school students said they like meeting with the high school students because they’re relatable role models.

“It’s like a teacher your age,” Lemuel said.

Jennifer Campbell, James Martin’s leadership teacher, said she’s enjoyed seeing her kids light up when they’re around the high school mentors.

“Especially my boys,” she said. “It’s so cool to see how they look up to them.”

Bost, Vance’s teacher, said that in just the first few weeks of mentoring the middle-schoolers, she’s seen a difference already in her students.

“The maturity level of our students has definitely risen, and they always think before they act,” she said. “They’re amazing kids, and literally, this class makes me feel complete as an educator.”

As a student, Breanna feels similarly. She recently was a keynote speaker at a women’s empowerment church conference.

“This class has really shaped how I want to be,” she said. “This leadership class has really inspired me.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @lruebens
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