Watson Chapel Junior High School students have won the Original KingFest National Alliance of Faith and Justice Pen or Pencil Boycott violence challenge.
The Rev. Jesse Turner, executive director of the Interested Citizens for Voter Registration and pastor of Elm Grove Baptist Church, shared this news Monday night with the Watson Chapel School Board. It comes three months after Turner challenged seventh-and eight-graders in the Watson Chapel, Pine Bluff and Dollarway school districts to boycott violence to honor the peaceful legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We see too many students going from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse, because of negative behaviors in the classroom,” Turner said. “[The boycott of violence] is a service learning initiative. And it is one that was endorsed by the National Council for the Social Studies.”
Turner said the winning students will be given pizza. He specified that those who fought will be excluded. Retired educator Mary Liddell is a secretary for Interested Citizens for Voter Registration and joined Turner in sharing the results.
“We want to make sure the students stopped fighting, bringing weapons, and bullying,” Liddell said. “All three districts did a good job. Watson Chapel Junior seventh- and eighth-graders were the winners.”
Liddell said she intends to host this challenge twice per academic year. In other news, the school board heard from Watson Chapel High School senior Tristen Hall, who created a project called Youth Mobility Program for an EAST class. The purpose of the EAST class is to find problems in the community and propose solutions. Tristen Hall and her parents, Dr. Constance Hall and Cornelius Hall, used to live in Nashville, Tennessee, before the moved to Pine Bluff. She said she observed Pine Bluff students lacking methods of transportation. She proposed allowing Watson Chapel students to use their school identification cards to ride on Pine Bluff Transit buses.
“I have noticed that normally a lot of students when they need to get somewhere they are either using their parents or they are dependent on the school bus,” Tristen Hall said. “I am trying to propose [having] a multifaceted ID that allows us to partner with the school systems with our cafeteria, with our public library and with the Pine Bluff Transit that allows our ID card to be used in all these places.”
She said she took a survey of her fellow students to ask if they would come to school if they did not have transportation by either a school bus or their parents.
“I think if we use Pine Bluff Transit, we would be able to allow for a better method to go to school if they miss the bus,” Tristen Hall said. “This is what I am advocating for.”
Cornelius Hall said the community of Nashville, Tennessee, offers a public transportation program called Stride through which students visit libraries, museums, shopping malls and youth programs.
“It helped the community youth programs because they now had accessible available transportation,” Cornelius Hall said. “Riding on city transit is a privilege. If you have students who have bad behavior, in gangs, fighting, bullying, they do not access. They do not have a past that allows them to utilize the city transit. Then you can minimize behavior problems. They have to understand once they are on the city bus, you are under the local government rules.”
With respect to the monetary cost associated with these ideas, Cornelius Hall said he expects the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to offer grants to organizations to improve students in terms of their attendance in school and their health conditions. He said the grants range from $1,000 to $3,000,000.
“We believe that they will grant us the funding so that we can use it as a test pilot,” Cornelius Hall said.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a public health philanthropy that strives to build a national Culture of Health to enable people to live longer, healthier lives, according to its website.
Constance Hall said her daughter’s proposal hinges on students being accountable.
“Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has a pillar focused on education,” Constance Hall said. “This initiative fits within that spectrum. Not only would we be affecting the students for mobility, but we would also be enhancing their life and engagement for health and moving them out of poverty.”
Tristen Hall acknowledged her project supervisor is Kathy Brown-Ladd. Board members commended Tristen Hall for her labor but did not take a vote related to her ideas. In discipline news, Watson Chapel School District Superintendent Connie Hathorn recommended the expulsion of a student who had threatened other students and teachers. Hathorn said the student had already been suspended seven times and used threatening language specific to gangs. Board members Ronnie Reynolds, Alan Frazier, Kevin Moore, Goldie Whitaker and Sandra Boone voted to expel the student.
“Even though our motives and business is to educate, we cannot educate when there is disharmony like that,” Boone said.
In other news, teacher Frankie Hemphill thanked the board for giving teachers bonuses in November 2016. She said district teachers have not been granted salary increases in eight years to 10 years.
“The value of the paycheck has gone down,” Hemphill said. “… The cost of living has skyrocketed and is going up. Because of those reasons, we are asking you to give us a $500 bonus at the end of this school year. That won’t bring us up to where we should be but it would help everyone out. Faculty have worked hard to get us out of academic distress.”
Audience members clapped after Hemphill spoke. Board members did not discuss or vote on Hemphill’s request. Board members Mack Milner and Donnie Hartsfield were absent.