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Shine Girls Spread Light Across District

One of the gifts Benna Haas shared in her position as Academically Intellectually Gifted (AIG) specialist at Phillips Middle School (PMS) was her tireless campaign to make sure voiceless students find their voices. One of Haas’ lasting legacies is the creation and development of the Shine Girls, a group of gifted students of color at PMS who have lifted their voices beyond their own school, as Estes Hills classroom readers, speakers at school board meetings, contributors at district equity trainings and in other settings.

“One way for our underrepresented AIG students to have their voices heard was to nurture their gifts and talents in and out of the school building by collaborating with Ms. Roslyn Moffitt, Director of Title 1,” said Haas. “To highlight their visibility and gifts in their classrooms, we  summoned and gathered their strengths in other spaces over the course of three years together: circle time, mentor invites, and family celebrations. Now we realize that their voices aren’t just for their classrooms, but for all teachers in this district. We are honored to be part of their Shine journey!”

shine strings with Dr B At their opening meeting in September, the mood was nothing short of celebratory as teachers and administrators at PMS were joined by district leaders to launch the Shines into a new school year, and to encourage their widening sphere of influence. Balloons and fresh flowers decorated tables in the media center, and the Diversity Strings Orchestra (including several Shine girls) performed under the direction of Ann Daaleman, PMS orchestra teacher. Principal Drew Ware welcomed those in attendance, and he spoke about the difference the girls make at PMS. He said, “Your school is 100% behind you.”

During the celebration last fall, Superintendent Dr. Pam Baldwin spoke to the girls about embracing their shine, and she shared her own narrative of how her shine has evolved. Using the metaphor of diamonds, Baldwin described how they are formed under pressure and heat to become beautiful objects of great value. “You’re becoming the diamonds to create that shine, that luster,” she told the girls. “Check your shine every day, and shine it up when it gets tarnished. If need be, ask others to help you shine it.”

Camille House, AIG coordinator, said, “Ms. Haas has been instrumental in moving the vision of gifted services forward for middle school students. She recognizes that all students need opportunities at school that empower, engage, and inspire them. Her efforts to create a space for the Shine Girls to meet on a regular basis so that their gifts and talents could be nurtured and shared with others demonstrates her belief that every student can find their potential - it only takes a spark to ignite a fire that can shine for a lifetime.”

Pristine O speaks to board On October 4, eighth grade students Shani Jacobs-Webb and Pristine Onuoha  represented the Shine Girls when they spoke during public comment at a school board meeting. They both referred to the transformative impact from attending the Racial Equity Institute last summer. “Now that I am aware of barriers for people of color, the next step is to spread that awareness and tear the barriers down,” said Ohuana. Addressing the board members directly, she said, “You have the power to help us reshape our school system.”

Jacobs-Webb said, “I spread my shine through my art, the way I talk, how I approach people and different situations, and what I teach to others. I want to teach, especially younger kids, to make their own narratives.” She described how consciously she focuses on her shine, her desire to transition to “becoming,” and in that process, to learn to be more open and learn from others, even those who don’t understand her. “It is my wish that the school I am in, the district I am in, will be the community of becoming.”

Tiffany Cheshire, assistant principal at PMS, said, “The Shine Girls are a strong group of young ladies who ‘shine’ for so many different reasons among their peers. They are examples for elementary students who may not have girls to look up to who are the same color they are. They are leaders in our building and I have seen so much growth in each of them, and in the program itself, in the two years that I have been here.”  

The girls usually meet during lunch time, and their meetings often include guest speakers. Recently, the eighth grade group gathered with Haas and Moffitt, as well as House and counselor Chaka Coleman, to participate in a Skype conversation with Dr. Donna Ford of Vanderbilt University, a widely recognized scholar in the recruitment and retention of culturally different students in gifted education. Ford urged the girls to be proactive in their learning and to “always come with a notebook and pen.” She asked a student to share her professional ambition, and when the student replied that she would like to be a spy, Ford said, “You could work for the FBI! Focus on foreign languages. Maybe you can be a forensic investigator.” Don’t dream modest dreams was her message.

shine girls read at Estes Last month, Haas coordinated with school social worker Betsy Booth at Estes Hills Elementary to schedule 14 of the Shine girls to visit kindergarten and first grade classrooms as guest readers for the African-American read-in. The children listened as their guests held up picture books, read each page and talked about the characters and plots. Haas looked on with pride as her students kept the children spellbound.

“Benna Haas has been instrumental in bringing this program to fruition,” Moffitt said. “Her ideas and expertise have helped the students develop their leadership skills. She stressed that each young lady has wonderful gifts and they should not be afraid to let the world see their Shine!”

Onuoha said, “Being a Shine Girl helped me feel like I mattered. I went from being just an ordinary black kid in an all-white classroom, never expected to achieve as much, to feeling like I could change the world. As a Shine Girl and AIG student, I tore down boundaries and stereotypes. I also connected with other girls of color who could understand my experiences and where I was coming from. I truly felt like I belonged. Being in Shine not only changed who I am as a person today, but also inspired me to change the world's perceptions of other young people of color.”

We salute Ms. Haas as she transitions to a new position, but many wonderful colleagues remain to continue the work. shines with Benna