Speaking Up

George Washington High student shares views on tolerance, inclusion and wearing a head scarf

PHOTO: Colorado Education Initiative
Haneen Badri, a senior at Denver's George Washington High School, during her speech at the Colorado Education Initiative's Healthy Schools Summit.

Haneen Badri, a senior at Denver’s George Washington High School, earned a standing ovation after a poignant speech last week in which she discussed the need for tolerance and inclusiveness in schools and society.

Her parents, who are Sudanese, immigrated to the United States in 1995 with Haneen’s older sister. They first settled in Washington, D.C., where her older brother was born, and later moved to Denver, where Haneen was born.

Haneen, 17, said her parents came to the U.S. because they wanted better educational opportunities for their children.

Haneen is president of the mock trial and pep clubs at school, leads the Colorado Muslim Society’s girls youth group and is a youth representative for an association of Young Sudanese. Next year, she hopes to study pre-law and international relations at Colorado State University, Arizona State University or Washington University in St. Louis.

She spoke with Chalkbeat after her speech at the Colorado Education Initiative’s Healthy Schools Summit. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What decision did you make in seventh grade about how you would dress?

Muslim women, it’s religious that you wear a head scarf and you get to choose when you do that. During seventh grade it just felt right for me.

It was just really odd as soon as I started wearing it, I was a completely different person to everyone. They didn’t see me as Muslim until after I started wearing it. The ignorance, the fear of how I’m different caused some of my relationships to fall apart.

In your speech, you mentioned a startling playground incident that felt like an assault on your dignity. What happened?

During the spring of that year, we had lunch and while we were outside a female peer ripped [my head scarf] off.

Do you know why did she did it?

No. I never really did get a clear answer, but I did get an apology. I did get the chance to educate her about Islam.

What was it like to educate her about Islam?

I guess I was kind of used to it because my parents taught us to be open about who we are. We met up the summer of that year. It was me and my parents and her parents and her. We just sat down and talked and let them ask all the questions that they had and answered them.

How did that incident impact you?

It made me realize that it happens more often and that we don’t really talk about it. Once I started the (Colorado Muslim Society) girls youth group, other girls came forward about, “This has happened to me before and I haven’t been able to talk about it because I thought I was the only one.”

It was kind of eye-opening about how much pressure we put on students not to talk about their personal experiences. And that developed me in a way where I do like talking to groups who are underrepresented or traditionally not accurately portrayed in our classrooms and I do like including them in all lessons and decisions.

What do people assume about you?

Usually, they think I’m angry or that I’m close-minded or I’m biased because of my religion or that I’m intolerant of other people or other races. It’s kind of funny because I’m completely the opposite.

You talked about feeling that inclusiveness is lacking in schools. How so?

The norm in our society is a white, rich male who’s Christian, who’s straight. If you don’t really fit into that norm, you’re an exception. Society tends not to accurately portray you and so it’s in our media, in television, in children’s books, in education.

We spend only two days on African-American history, and only discuss slavery and civil rights, and the rest of the year we discuss the creation of America from Christopher Columbus all the way until now. We don’t discuss Native American history besides the Trail of Tears. Latino history is rarely discussed at all.

It’s just kind of heartbreaking that we do want to promote diversity but we aren’t doing any actions to show that.

In years past, there’s been tension at George Washington because of a sense of separation between students in the International Baccalaureate program and the traditional program. How’s that going?

We’ve started a Safe Zone panel, which is once every semester. We have a panel of students and it’s student-led. Teachers come and ask us questions about how they could make their room more inclusive and how they could integrate students of all backgrounds in their classrooms. It’s a great start, but I think there could be more.

Over the summer, we started the student ambassador program and that was a week-long process at (the University of Denver.) The first two days were just ambassadors—sophomores, juniors and seniors—and the last three days were “Freshman Academy,” where we taught the freshmen that inclusion is the key to succeeding in life and how to interact with students they don’t tend to identify with.

So far, I think it’s going great because yes, the (upper) classes are experiencing difficulties, but the freshman class tends to be more cohesive and understanding of each other. I think that’s the real key to changing George because once we keep on educating each incoming class then the student environment will be able to change.

If you could wave a magic wand and make one change at school, what would it be?

Definitely inclusion because I’ve noticed at George besides the segregation between IB and traditional (tracks), we tend to dismiss the special needs program. That personally angers me because our special needs department is in charge of recycling, they clean up after the school, they manage growing our trees. They’re just really underappreciated and dehumanized and demeaned…I think it’s just a matter of spreading more knowledge about there’s no difference between us and them and there’s no difference between traditional and IB.

How would you say you’ve changed since middle school?

In middle school it was really rough. I wasn’t able to speak up as I do now. It was hard finding my voice, but now—I do tend to shy away, but there’s my subconscious telling me, “No, go for it.”

It’s been great to see myself develop from this shy, timid girl to someone who can speak for herself and speak for others.

En pointe

How ballet is energizing one Memphis school — and helped save it from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Briana Brown, an instructor with New Ballet Ensemble, prepares her first-grade dance students for a performance at Dunbar Elementary School in Memphis.

Instructor Briana Brown counts aloud as first-graders in pink leotards skip across a classroom floor to practice their leaps and twirls — a weekly highlight for students at Dunbar Elementary School.

In the South Memphis neighborhood, ballet lessons offered through the nonprofit New Ballet Ensemble introduce students to the art of dance at a school with few resources for extracurricular activities.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among 40 students receiving dance instruction at Dunbar Elementary School.

Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among the beneficiaries.

Before joining New Ballet’s class, she danced throughout her mom’s house, just a short walk from Dunbar in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound. Now, Briana is among about 40 Dunbar students who jeté and pirouette in a makeshift classroom studio at Dunbar, or after school in a studio at the group’s headquarters in midtown Memphis.

“I want to keep dancing and to be a dance teacher when I grow up,” Briana said. “I think this is really special. If I hadn’t done ballet at school, I don’t know if I ever would have danced for real and not just at home.”

For eight years, New Ballet Ensemble has been teaching classes at Dunbar and offering scholarships to a talented few to continue their dance education outside of school time. Here under the tutelage of teaching artists who are fluent in classical ballet and other styles of dance, they learn to follow instructions, practice new positions, strengthen young muscles and develop discipline, all while expressing themselves creatively and learning about a world beyond Orange Mound.

But the Memphis dance company’s work has gone far beyond teaching students how to plié and fondu. Thanks to grants that New Ballet helped secure, Dunbar now has a community garden and parent resource center.

And when Dunbar was on the chopping block to be closed this year by Shelby County Schools, New Ballet dancers, instructors and supporters showed up en force at school board meetings. The district later reversed its decision and opted to keep Dunbar open. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson cited community support as a reason for his change of heart.

Katie Smythe founded New Ballet Ensemble in 2001 to teach dance, but quickly discovered how her organization’s work was being limited by a dearth of community resources available to public schools in Memphis.

“We came here to find talented kids for dance, but we found that our access to community partnerships and the school board to be the real opportunity point for us,” said Smythe, who also serves as the group’s artistic director. “The school board and administration learned while trying to close this school how valuable community partnerships can be, I think.”

New Ballet became one of the first outside-of-school organizations to have a stake in the Dunbar school community, said Principal Anniece Gentry.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Youngsters giggle as they watch their instructor demonstrate a dance move.

“When students see community partners are invested in their school, they want to achieve more,” Gentry said. “Our relationship with New Ballet is one I will always treasure. They work to do more than anyone else I’ve seen.”

The parent resource center is one of the most valuable additions. Stocked with computers, coffee and books, the room was created for parents with help from a $25,000 grant from ArtsMemphis, a local advocacy and funding group.

“There are computers for parents to use if they don’t have internet at home,” Smythe said. “I’ve seen parents drop their children off, walk to the room and apply for jobs while grabbing a cup of coffee. (For some parents), there was no positive reason for parents to come to school before this, only if their students were sick or in trouble.”

Building parent relationships have become key to New Ballet’s mission at Dunbar, and Smythe wants to take the group’s learnings to other Memphis schools. It’s already helping with arts education in classrooms at Bartlett and Sherwood elementary schools, and Smythe wants to bring Dunbar-style ballet programs to secondary schools that now teach former Dunbar students at Treadwell and Sherwood middle and Melrose and Douglass high.

But that takes money.

New Ballet is dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that could experience huge cuts under President Donald Trump’s administration. In addition to $15,000 in NEA funding, the group gets money for its school programs through the Tennessee Arts Commission, which also comes from NEA.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
New Ballet founder Katie Smythe brought ballet to Dunbar Elementary in 2009.

To remind those who hold the pursestrings about educational ballet programs like Dunbar’s, Smythe recently joined other arts advocates to speak with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Their message: The arts are more than just concert halls, expensive tickets and paintings that people don’t understand. It’s also about helping students to grow mentally, physically and academically.

For students like Briana, support for New Ballet would mean another year of free ballet lessons and after-school programming.

“I really look forward to performing,” Briana said. “Learning to dance is really fun. But being able to show off how much I’ve learned to my mom? That’s the best.”

Emerging partnership

Memphis schools have space. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. Now they just need money to put clubs in three schools.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
Memphis students show off "cancer awareness" posters they created as part of a Boys & Girls Club program at Promise Academy, a charter school in Raleigh. Three more clubs could open in Memphis schools by 2018.

Grappling with numerous under-enrolled schools and significant neighborhood needs, Memphis school leaders are seeking to fill some empty space by partnering with the Boys & Girls Club.

Shelby County Schools is working with the organization’s Memphis chapter to open clubs by 2018 inside three schools: Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High.

But first they have to secure about $1 million to pay for the clubs’ first year of operations.

Both entities view the emerging partnership as a way to connect space and programming to strengthen schools and their neighborhoods. The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis also wants to expand beyond its current seven sites.

“It doesn’t make sense to build a $4 or $5 million facility somewhere only to have the population shift due to school closure or neighborhood changes,” said executive director Keith Blanchard. “Suddenly, you have this super nice club and no kids. This way, we can go to where the kids are.”

The partnership would step up the effort of Shelby County Schools to join a national trend in developing community schools, which put facilities to use beyond the traditional school day and emphasize a holistic approach for addressing poverty, health and behavior. The arrangement also would tap into a growth and missional model for the Boys & Girls Club, which has been successful in working with schools in cities such as Orlando.

Blanchard hopes the new Memphis clubs would provide students with an after-school option in schools where extracurriculars are slim, as well as a place to go during summer breaks. Each site could serve up to 240 students.

While the district can provide space and utilities, each site would cost an estimated $330,000 to operate — an expense that district leaders plan to ask the County Commission to cover initially. The long-term goal is to get corporate and donor support.

“The last thing we want to do is open these clubs and have to close in two years,” Blanchard said.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club operates seven clubs in Memphis.

Under-enrolled school buildings are plentiful in Shelby County Schools, where leaders have closed more than 20 schools since 2012, partially due to low enrollment. At the same time, Memphis school leaders are seeking more resources to serve a disproportionately high number of poor, black and disabled students.

“We are always looking for ways to expose our students to programs/activities that foster good citizenship, character building, and healthy lifestyles that contribute to student success,” a district spokeswoman said in an email this month.

The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis already has one school-based club at Promise Academy, a state-run charter school in Raleigh, where about 60 students attend.

Blanchard said the three newest school sites were chosen because the organization doesn’t have a strong presence in those neighborhoods.

Dunbar Elementary Principal Anniece Gentry said the Orange Mound community would welcome the additional resource.

“There’s not a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club in this area,” Gentry said. “This would be a place not just for students, but for the entire neighborhood, as a way to bring families together. For the students, having structured resources in the afternoon is going to help them to grow even better during the academic school day.”