With drums pounding a steady heartbeat and families sitting down to a home-cooked meal, Anoka Middle School for the Arts (AMSA) presented its inaugural African American Parent Involvement Dinner Feb. 11.
The evening program, staged in the school’s cafeteria, had some 120 people enjoying a meal prepared by Woodsman Grill head chef Jerry M. Edwards II as AMSA orchestra teacher Julie Schmidt’s student drummers kept the beat and families shared stories.
“Tonight is about listening and storytelling. Listening to each other’s stories and telling your own stories,” said AMSA Principal Jerri McGonigal, welcoming parents and families to the event.
“We know we don’t have one story. We have 1,800 different stories. We want to hear each other’s stories. We want to be a family.”
As families enjoyed a meal of chicken or fish, they shared stories of their traditions, their hometowns and their experience at the middle school.
Does your child feel welcome at Anoka Middle School for the Arts? What works? What needs to be done? What can we do better?
Those questions were among suggested conversation starters placed at each table in the lunchroom.
And conversation flowed easily.
“This was so empowering, yet so comfortable and casual. I’m glad my children attend here,” said Connie Austin, a foster mother who currently has two children at AMSA, one at the Washington campus, and two younger ones on the way.
Guest speaker Radious Guess, parent involvement specialist for the NorthWest Suburban Integration School District and 1980 U.S. Olympic track team alternate, urged parents to encourage their children’s dreams.
“Let your children know if they are disciplined and dedicated and have family support, they can do anything,” Guess said.
“Sometimes we get so caught up in what’s going on, we forget who we are.”
Cassondra Whittley, a mother who attended the dinner with her family, said those words hit especially close to home.
“I want to make sure I help my kids follow their dreams,” Whittley said. “Sometimes it’s easy to forget what those dreams are. I want to make sure I help my kids remember their dreams.”
Other speakers echoed Guess’ words, describing ways in which they, too, have risen beyond expectations, disproved stereotypes and achieved success.
Students’ perspectives were presented via student-produced videos which described the eclectic racial, religious and cultural backgrounds of students at the middle school.
Another video portrayed students’ take on the way they are perceived by classmates of another race, culture or tradition.
“Most people think black people don’t have money and that’s how they look at you, that’s how they talk to you, that’s how they treat you,” said one teen African American in the video.
“Sometimes people just start to act the way the stereotypes say you act,” said another.
But McGonigal and the AMSA staff are determined to create and maintain an international family type atmosphere at the school.
That desire was evident by words shared by Tanshea Madyon, parent volunteer at AMSA.
“I’m the mother of six sons and one daughter,” she said. “When I signed up to volunteer, I didn’t know what I was getting to.”
“We’ve had ups, downs, challenges and assumptions on both sides and what I’ve learned is that in order for our children to be successful, we as parents need to be as dedicated to education and involvement in our school as we expect our children to be. What I’m hoping we start here today is community – family – in our school.”
Tina Watts and Kim Heckmann, volunteer coordinator at AMSA and at Anoka High School, respectively, both invited parents to get involved, to volunteer at the schools.
“I love my job,” said Heckmann. “I have so much fun with the kids and there are so many ways you can volunteer at the school. We have parents as guest speakers, going on field trips, chaperoning the dances, concert, orchestra, choir boosters. There are so many ways to get involved, and you will be so happy you did.”
McGonigal closed the evening by telling the families how much they mean to her.
“Most importantly, we hope you know we care about you, about your family, about your children,” McGonigal said.
Sue Austreng is at [email protected]