Northeast Times

The determined DIVAs of Memphis Street Academy

The girls who par­ti­cip­ated in the D.I.V.A. Academy, led by Shalena Broast­er (cen­ter, in pink). Broast­er led the girls through ex­er­cises in self-es­teem, and closed the pro­gram Fri­day with a “crown­ing” present­a­tion and fash­ion show. MI­KALA JAM­IS­ON

With the help of a loc­al act­iv­ist, young ladies at Mem­ph­is Street Academy Charter School say they have found the suc­cess stor­ies with­in them­selves.

On a sprawl­ing stage in­side the school that once had a repu­ta­tion as one of the worst places in Phil­adelphia to get an edu­ca­tion, a young girl joins 15 of her class­mates in bar­ing her soul.

“These girls, we all went through a lot,” she says, as the tiara that’s been placed upon her head sparkles. “We struggled.”

Chok­ing up along with the oth­er young ladies be­hind her, she con­tin­ues, “Mem­ph­is Street has changed us.”

Formerly John Paul Jones Middle School, Mem­ph­is Street Academy Charter School was taken over last year by edu­ca­tion re­form or­gan­iz­a­tion Amer­ic­an Paradigm Schools. Since, the school has rolled out pro­gram after pro­gram for its stu­dents, who have jumped at the chance to play pos­it­ive roles in their school com­munity.

On Fri­day, one of the latest pro­grams at Mem­ph­is Street came to a close. It fo­cused on 16 young ladies and a very im­port­ant factor in their home and school en­vir­on­ment — their self es­teem.

Shalena Broast­er, an anti-bul­ly­ing ex­pert, cer­ti­fied life coach and au­thor of “Fire Your Friends: A Wo­man’s Guide to Be­com­ing Her Own Best Friend,” has been work­ing at Mem­ph­is Street for nearly eight weeks as part of her D.I.V.A. Academy, which aims to en­hance the self-worth and con­fid­ence of the school’s girls. Last week, the pro­gram closed with a present­a­tion by the girls in which they de­scribed their ex­per­i­ence with Broast­er.

They also danced, sang, and strut­ted their stuff in a mini-fash­ion show. 

The D.I.V.A. Pro­gram, Broast­er said, stands for the op­por­tun­ity the young ladies have to “dis­cov­er, in­vest, value, ap­pre­ci­ate” their “God-giv­en gifts.”

“A diva is a young lady who is con­fid­ent, who is sure of her­self, who is a schol­ar,” Broast­er said.

On Fri­day’s present­a­tion, decked out as only a diva would be in a hot-pink minidress and sparkly heels, Broast­er ad­dressed the as­sembled Mem­ph­is Street girls, who each has a chance to en­roll in the next ses­sion of the D.I.V.A. Academy.

“I know the struggle,” Broast­er said. “Not every­body sup­ports you, but edu­ca­tion is your tick­et out of here. You need school.”

Broast­er grew up in South Phil­adelphia, where she said she ex­per­i­enced the same kind of tragedy and vi­ol­ence some Mem­ph­is Street stu­dents might face daily.

Her older broth­er was murdered, and her fath­er, a drug ad­dict, tried to kill her moth­er one night. Her fath­er even­tu­ally be­came in­fec­ted with HIV as a res­ult of his drug use, and passed away when she was 4. 

When she was 12, her step­fath­er, a drug deal­er, was kid­napped by a rival drug gang, and she and her baby broth­er were held at gun­point.

A few of the girls who spoke on stage men­tioned that Broast­er made them feel at ease, and shared her story with them so that they could feel com­fort­able shar­ing their own stor­ies dur­ing the D.I.V.A. Academy ses­sions.

Broast­er was ac­cep­ted in­to the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania on a full, four-year Phil­adelphia May­or’s Schol­ar­ship, but in­stead at­ten­ded Duke Uni­versity, also on schol­ar­ship, earn­ing a de­gree in polit­ic­al sci­ence.

She said the young ladies at Mem­ph­is Street can fol­low the same suc­cess­ful path.

“I’m so glad these young ladies gave me a chance, and that they gave them­selves a chance,” said Broast­er, adding that the biggest chal­lenge dur­ing the pro­gram was get­ting the girls to trust her.

Christine Borelli, CEO of Mem­ph­is Street Academy, said Fri­day that the gradu­ates of this D.I.V.A. ses­sion will go on to ment­or oth­er, young­er girls at the school.

When the ses­sions began, Borelli said, “Some of these girls were a chal­lenge. They nev­er thought of col­lege be­fore this.”

In­deed, many of the girls Fri­day shared stor­ies of how dif­fer­ent they had be­come through the ses­sions — they spoke of changes in their at­ti­tude and the even­tu­al re­cog­ni­tion of their own tal­ents.

Celia Re­menter, of Kens­ing­ton, who is in 8th grade at Mem­ph­is Street, said she ini­tially didn’t want to par­ti­cip­ate in D.I.V.A. Academy. The girls were picked by ad­min­is­trat­ors at the school.

Even­tu­ally, Re­menter said, she warmed up.

“I learned I can ac­com­plish things my­self,” she said. “If I looked in the mir­ror and thought, ‘You’re ugly,’ I learned that’s not true.”

Re­menter, who said she dis­covered with­in her­self the dream of be­com­ing a chef one day, said be­cause Broast­er shared her dif­fi­cult back­ground, it was easy to share her own dif­fi­cult story.

“I wish I was in 7th grade, so I can do it again next year,” Re­menter said of the D.I.V.A. Academy. She ad­ded she’s ex­cited, though, to be­come a ment­or to young­er stu­dents.

“We cre­ated a safe space,” Broast­er said of the ses­sions. “I told the girls, ‘be­come a best friend to your­self.’”

It was easy to see, that day at the school, that the 16 girls felt good about who they are. Broast­er had crowned them each with a tiara and a strand of pearls, and they turned and said to one an­oth­er, “You are worthy, you are spe­cial, I be­lieve in you.”

Then, as their class­mates in the audi­ence ap­plauded wildly, they each took a turn with the mi­cro­phone to state one thing about them­selves, like:

“I am de­term­ined.”

“I am beau­ti­ful.”

“I am bril­liant.”

“I am suc­cess­ful.”

“I am strong.”

And per­haps for the first time in many of their lives, the young di­vas of the Mem­ph­is Street Academy Charter School couldn’t hide the fact that they really be­lieved it. ••

Mem­ph­is Street Academy also made head­lines last week for its Pro­ject at E.A.S.E. (En­han­cing Ac­count­ab­il­ity for School En­gage­ment) pro­gram, which was fea­tured on NBC’s “TODAY Show.”

Pro­ject at E.A.S.E. was de­veloped by Amer­ic­an Paradigm Schools to spe­cific­ally meet the needs of Mem­ph­is Street Academy Charter School in con­junc­tion with Troops to Teach­ers fa­cil­it­at­ors at West Chester Uni­versity.

The mis­sion of Pro­ject at E.A.S.E. is to in­crease stu­dent en­gage­ment and aca­dem­ic achieve­ment with guid­ance from mil­it­ary vet­er­ans. See the video at: ph.ly/mem­ph­is.

Man­aging Ed­it­or Mi­kala Jam­is­on can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at mjam­is­on@bsmphilly.com.

You can reach at mjamison@bsmphilly.com.

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