The determined DIVAs of Memphis Street Academy
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.