Stomp. Clap. Chant. Young teachers inspire Ashley Park kids to step toward college

Ashley Park Pre K-8 students come together for Step Team

The Blue Wings Step Team includes 26 students from the school
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The Blue Wings Step Team includes 26 students from the school

Watch the cool resolve on Imani McCray’s face when she leads her step team through drill after drill and you’d never guess she’s only 10 years old.

She’s good at the moves – small wonder, since she practices daily at home, in addition to the twice-weekly practices at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Ashley Park PreK-8 School. And she embodies grit, that “don’t mess with me” style that signals she’s tough enough to take on anything in her way.

A lot of things can stand between Ashley Park students and success. Most students come from low-income neighborhoods. Academic challenges have proven persistent, even in the face of millions of dollars in Project LIFT aid.

Project LIFT leaders recently told the school board that even though test scores haven’t risen as fast as they had all hoped, the culture is changing in schools like Ashley Park. That doesn’t always show up in data, but you see it in the actions of two 25-year-old teachers, who are using their step team skills to set students’ sights on college, and in the response of students like Imani.

The Blue Wings Step Team began with Rode Damian, a UNC Charlotte graduate who attended Ashley Park as an elementary student. She returned to her old school as a teacher this year, after finishing graduate school at the Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan.

Damian was on a step team as an Alpha Kappa Alpha. Now teaching fourth-grade math, she thought her students might benefit from the disciplined stomping, dancing and chanting that’s a vital part of Greek college life.

She asked fifth-grade teacher Barry White Jr. for help. He’d been a stepmaster at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., leading an award-winning Kappa Alpha Psi team. In his second year at Ashley Park, White became something of a celebrity earlier this year when CMS posted a Facebook video of White doing elaborate individual handshakes to greet each of his students in the morning.

Damian and White had the skills and the energy. They recruited third-grade teacher Brittany Dawson to join them as team manager.

The team would certainly keep kids physically fit. And it would provide a safe, constructive after-school activity. But the teachers saw it as far more than that.

“It teaches them about college and it also brings a sense of family and unity. The older kids take the younger kids under their wing,” Damian says.

Step shows have spread from college campuses to younger students. Several CMS high schools have teams, though it’s not clear how many elementary and middle schools do.

The original plan for Ashley Park limited the team to grades four through six, because seventh- and eighth-graders already have access to sports and other extracurricular activities. But White says the buzz quickly built and older students demanded a shot. About 60 students packed the tryouts, with 22 girls and four boys winning spots on the team.

Rather than post a list in the hall, the teachers delivered notices to students who made the team. The kids screamed, jumped and hugged when they unscrolled their acceptance letters.

Practices are rigorous, physically and mentally. Not only do team members drill steps and routines, they chant the mission statement and the meaning of WINGS: Winning attitude, Important in every way, Never give in or give up, Growth, Grit, Greatness and Striving for excellence.

The team gave a “teaser” performance at a recent pep rally, and plans to do a full routine at an assembly shortly before Christmas break.

Principal Meaghan Loftus loves watching them work. Everyone on faculty talks to the students about college, but it’s different when they’re stepping with teachers wearing their fraternity and sorority letters.

“It makes it real for them,” Loftus said.

Damian has visions of taking the team to competitions in Atlanta and New York: “Our team is pretty small,” she says, “but they have a lot of heart.”

Imani drops her stern demeanor when she’s asked about the team. “It’s very, very exciting,” she says with a smile. And yes, she expects to be stepping in college someday.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms