I’m still overwhelmed with tears, with pride, with hope… ok, now you’ll think I’m just exaggerating. I couldn’t. This is real. This is the way forward. I have seen the future of humanity, and it makes me smile.
Thomas Lentz, Amanda McCallister and Cristina Vega are teachers at Ridge Community High School in Polk County, Florida.
They are union leaders. They are education leaders. They are creative to their core. They understand the power produced when you give leadership and authority to people – whether those are big people or little people. They understand the energy produced from knowing you’re responsible for making decisions that will impact something important.
They understand the very human thing produced when people come together in a democracy to propose and plan and debate and decide what to do. Apathy falls away. New ideas are generated. You have a sense of purpose and become driven to succeed.
They thought of their own students who were at risk at becoming lost in an inhuman, irrelevant bureaucracy that only counted test score points. These powerful educators began to think outside that tiny testing box.
What if the students at their school could feel the power to lead? What if their students could propose, consider and decide important things in their lives – things that mattered to their education; to their community; to their world? What if their students could clearly see the purpose of a whole and human education and the power in their how hands to achieve what they wanted to achieve?
Not much in the lives of these students appeared to be in their own hands. Ridge Community High School is made up of a diverse population of white, African-American and Latino students. Many of their families face financial struggles and immigration issues. It’s not uncommon that in schools like Ridge Community, demographics become destiny.
Parents, who had little opportunity to learn when they were children, work hard at low-wage jobs with no benefits. Most have not attended college and are unsure how to help their own children navigate a system where you begin in jr. high school preparing for a pipeline of classes that will result in the right credits needed for a college application. I won’t even mention the pie-in-the-sky dream of saving enough to afford a university education, even if they had the right credits.
No matter. To powerful educators the answer is always in teaching children to see the possibilities of their own lives and the power they have in their own hands. Thus was born Sigma Alpha Sigma. What should I call it? It’s definitely not a club. Although it has a Greek name, it’s not part of the formal Greek sorority/fraternity system. However, like the Greek system, little brothers and little sisters in high school come together to support each other.
Against what some would see as overwhelming odds, these students aspire to a university education and have formed a supportive community to learn the skills, knowledge and attitude that will take them there and beyond.
It’s hard to explain exactly what Sigma is. Ridge Community High School is close to Orlando, and maybe it’s the Disney influence on my brain right now, but this Sigma thing is, well, magical. There’s no other way to describe walking into an auditorium with over 300 high school students on their feet clapping, shouting, cheering… for me. But they would have done this for any guest. They love telling their stories. They were happy for my company. I was transformed by theirs.
The energy of these young men and women is contagious. I’m smiling now just to think of them. I told them that I had read their story of coming together as a deliberately diverse organization of students who were leading a culture change and making education a “cool kid” thing. I asked them what they wanted the world to know about them.
Their voices sang, confident and clear:
“Tell them we’re family. Sigma is about focusing on what we want in our lives and helping each other get there. We study together. We mentor each other.”
“Tell them this is led by students. It’s not led by teachers or parents. They can help, but this works because we lead it. We make it work or it won’t work. We’ve created a culture around student leadership and helping each other succeed.”
“Tell them we’re building a community that will last when all of us have graduated and gone to college. We know that other kids will come after us who won’t even know who we are, but we’ll still be a part of them and they’ll be a part of us because we’re giving them something we started and they’ll give it to the next kids. We’ll always be a part of the same family. We’re a family that believes in ourselves.”
Student after student used the word “family”. Student after student talked about the responsibility in their hands to create their own futures, but just as passionately they spoke of their responsibility to future generations of unknown Sigma brothers and sister. They had tears in their eyes. I had tears in my eyes.
This is education. It is an intensely human thing to open a child’s mind to its infinite possibilities. This is what it is to teach. These talented, passionate educators knew how to begin to unfold those possibilities. They turned the engine over and then and stepped back and allowed the students to take the wheel.
Paolo Freire, the Brazilian philosopher and educator knew that children didn’t come to us as empty vessels to be filled. He respected their humanity as critical, creative thinkers. He would have smiled if he could have been welcomed into the auditorium with cheers and applause.
He would have understood that these kids were cheering for the pure joy in the opportunity of sharing with the world their courageous, hopeful hearts and the focused energy of their minds. He would have understood the deep well from which that bucket of joy was drawn. He wrote long ago that the foundation of all education is ultimately love.
The teachers at Ridge Community High School understood the power of giving power to their students. The students of Sigma Alpha Sigma took that power and have created a family. They are brothers and sisters now. They will not allow their brothers and sisters to fall. Their hearts are overflowing with profound and powerful love. Their power to succeed is not in being filled with factoids for a test.
Their power to succeed is in unleashing their humanity. It’s in their power to love.