Teacher, students together find courage to lead

Teacher, students together find courage to lead
Amy Donofrio, leadership class teacher, student Dequan Jackson, Loyce Nelson, Teach for America teacher, student Bernard Thomas

It takes more than a little courage, as a young white female, to face 20 young African American men and talk about injustice and how to overcome it.

Likewise, at-risk sophomores and juniors at Robert E. Lee High School draw on wells of courage to honestly share feelings about peer pressures and negative experiences.

Lee High English teacher Amy Donofrio was chosen by the school principal, Scott Schneider, to help develop a curriculum based on the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence, and then facilitate a class in leadership.

Teacher, students together find courage to lead

Visiting the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C., Pastor Jay Harris, Loyce Nelson, Amy Donofrio, Dequan Jackson, Bernard Thomas

“This was a visionary move on Principal Scott Schneider’s part,” said Donofrio about 5,000 Role Models of Excellence, which became a new initiative in Duval County Public Schools in 2015, but as an extracurricular activity. “We are the only Duval school to have an official class,” she said.

“I was ignorant about the degree of woundedness and how impacted they have been by everything they have experienced,” noted Donofrio, who said she felt totally inadequate to lead a group of African American young men. “We are walking through this together.”

Schneider and class mentors Pastor Jay Harris of Image Church and Pastor Boyd Bettis of District Church agree that Donofrio has the passion and heart to help at-risk youth.

“I love these kids passionately. This class is a family, a team,” said Donofrio. “When the first young man shared his story we were bonded by the underlying tension, the common strands of violence. These stories opened a dialogue.”

Representatives from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and many other justice leaders come in as resources, and listen to stories that are not easy to hear.

“It is important to me as a teacher, not to be the center of the class,” Donofrio said. “It’s a group buy-in. They don’t have to be in the class.” 

The class has already made a tangible difference in the lives of two students, Dequan Jackson and Bernard Thomas III, who had the opportunity to attend the Coalition for Juvenile Justice Round Table in April at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Only 14 young men aged 16 to 24 from across the United States were chosen out of hundreds of applicants.

“To have two students chosen from the same area and class speaks to their qualifications. Each one was nominated based on proven leadership potential,” said Donofrio. “Requirements included submitting an essay and resume and having four recommendations. U.S. Federal Attorney of the Jacksonville office, Frank Talbot, was pivotal. He has taken an interest in the class and connected us with so many people. He wrote recommendations after meeting Dequan and Bernard in class.”

The trip to Washington, D.C. in April and the chance to participate in a two-day round table discussion with peers and major law enforcement officers on ways to impact Police Institute training impressed Thomas.

“It was great being around so many positive, diverse people. It gave us a chance to be heard,” said Thomas. “Young African American men don’t often get a chance to be heard. We got to speak up for ourselves and for others.”

Jackson agreed. “We had fun while we were getting down to business,” he said. “I took away a feeling of respect, everyone was equal, learned not to be judgmental, not to stereotype police officers. We ate lots of different kinds of food, toured the capitol. I’d never been on a plane or even out of the state before. I am so grateful to our sponsors.”

Teacher, students together find courage to lead

Josh Wicker, The District Church worship leader, Jeth Looney, disciple making, Pastor Boyd Bettis, Meagan Mayo, director of operations

The trip was funded by the Justice Department, but District Church of Riverside and Image Church on Liberty Street donated funding for an extra day, dress clothes and other needs, said Pastor Harris.

“There is a lot of pain, heartache, let downs and peer pressure with these kids. A lot of them have PTSD. Many do not have lights or running water or transportation. You can taste the hopelessness,” he said. 

The District Church, which meets at Lee High School for worship, has a clear mission of helping at-risk youth by “interrupting lives with love.”   

Both pastors volunteer in the classroom one or more times a week. According to Bettis, they provide consistency, help the kids navigate the world, help them find jobs and just “hang out.” 

Schneider reminded the class that “everything you do reflects on us too. We don’t just celebrate individually but as a group.”

Dean of Students Dwayne Thomas remarked, “This opportunity (to participate in the roundtable discussion) has a lasting impact on everyone.” 

The entire class has been invited to attend and to co-present a session at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice National Youth Summit in Washington in August.

Donofrio explained that the cost for 20 students and five mentor/chaperones will be around $20,000. The District Church is working on funding but anyone who would like to contribute can donate at https://www.gofundme.com/EVACtoDC.

“It’s been an amazing year,” said Donofrio, challenging her students. “Help me figure out how we can make this happen.”

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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