Schools honor young achievers

CHAMPAIGN - More than 200 Champaign elementary school pupils were honored this week at a Barkstall Elementary School ceremony for "young achievers."

And Urbana schools gave citations to African-American and low-income youngsters in elementary, secondary and high school programs designed to channel the youngsters into advanced classes and boost self-confidence and social responsibility.

Michelle Brown, a choice specialist for Champaign schools, said about 230 pupils from 11 elementary schools received certificates Friday for excelling in one of six different categories. The youngsters are nominated by their teachers for the awards.

"We wanted awards and categories for children who might not be normally recognized for their achievements," Brown said.

Award categories included ambassador of good will, community involvement, sports, performing arts, academic performance and outstanding student.

Presenters in each category were John Lee Johnson, an active member of the local black community who serves on the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission; Lucia Maldonado, a Latino family liaison for the district; Morris Virgil, an Urbana native who is a University of Illinois football player; clowns Posey and Flame; Vanessa Elam, a district parent coordinator; and Jane Park, a Westview teacher.

"The whole idea is for children of all nationalities to be good representatives of our district," Brown said. "The awards boost children's self-esteem, and we also have certificates for parents because they help with their students' achievement. To parents, we want to say congratulations for being there for your student."

Hattie Paulk, director of the Family Information Center, greeted the youngsters and their guests, as did Dorland Morris, deputy superintendent for achievement and equity. Awards were presented to recently retired school board members Mark Klaus, Jim Butler and Phil Van Ness.

The youngsters each received a framed certificate, and parents were given a special bumper sticker designed by school choice specialist Veatrice Williams. The bumper sticker says, "My child is a Young Achiever for Unit 4 schools."

Christina Donaldson, parent and community outreach coordinator for Urbana schools, said more than 500 students and family members attended the district's young achievers program Thursday at Urbana's Holiday Inn.

"It's an ongoing support program," Donaldson said. "Every year, we recognize current participants and welcome new student nominees from the elementary and middle schools."

She said it originally started as a cooperative program between the schools and the Urban League to address academic needs of black students and to encourage them to maintain at least a B average in classes and to move on to advanced level classes in high school.

"We try to involve 20 students at each elementary building and 20 in each middle school class," Donaldson said of the program, which has expanded to include low-income students of any race.

Students in the lower-level classes move on to the National Achievers Society in high school, she said.

"That's a student support program for students in weighted classes monitored by a coordinator," Donaldson said. She said services include tutoring for students who need help.

Students at all levels were honored Thursday with certificates, medals, pins and personal items, such as ribbons, buttons and bookmarks covered with kente cloth.

More than 300 youngsters were cited at the program.

"It's not just a recognition thing," Donaldson said. "The elementary and middle school participants meet at least twice a month, and in most schools, they meet weekly. It's about literacy and experiences. It's the district's way of honoring the relationships with family members and to keep talking about academic expectations for excellence."

Champaign parents said the recognition helps young students gain self-confidence and pride in their work.

Joan Walls' two sons, Dustin and Daniel, both received young achievers awards in the past, and Walls said the experience was very positive.

Dustin, now 8, received his award for academic performance last year, and Daniel's student ambassador award was presented two years ago.

"I think it's a very important program," Walls said. "It allows parents and children to celebrate academic success. Children work hard to be able to walk across that stage and hear the people cheering. It enhances their self-esteem."

She said her boys were both very excited to be honored.

"They were picked by their teachers, and it meant a lot to my children to have their teachers involved," Walls said. "It's all about students performing well."

Mike Haile's son, Christopher, now a Barkstall second-grader, got the student ambassador award when he was in kindergarten. Haile said that achievement put Christopher on the right track for future success in school.

"When a child wins an award, you're proud of his achievement and initiative," he said. "Christopher had some transition challenges, and the thing I'm most proud about is that he had the initiative to make a lot of friends and get along with people."

"It gave him an area of recognition different from his older sister's area of recognition."

You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at acook@news-gazette.com

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