Key to success for Urbana Middle's student support group: Just get 'em talking

Key to success for Urbana Middle's student support group: Just get 'em talking

URBANA — On Wednesdays all semester, the brothers of Sigma Gamma Beta gathered in an empty Urbana Middle School classroom.

The 10 of them — all seventh-graders whom teachers said needed extra social support — circled around each other every week and did something so simple, some people were surprised it worked.

They talked.

"The first two or three weeks, I was hesitant to express myself," Jalil Clark said. "But after I got comfortable with the group, everybody was just like talking and talking."

They talked about anything and everything: schoolwork stress, what it felt like to lose a family member to death or jail, whether they were encountering bias in the classroom, avoiding gang activity and how to move on from the loss of a lifelong companion (in one case, a cat).

Nothing was too large or too small to discuss, which guidance counselor Terri Medwed said was the whole point.

"It was less about adult intervention but more encouraging them to share information," she said.

An 18-year veteran of UMS, Medwed has created a number of student support groups over the years. But this group, composed entirely of young men and mostly minority students, was the first of its kind, she said.

"I really focused in on students that were teetering between being successful and possibly just having issues as they went on," she said. "It's important to allow students to have a voice or place to express themselves safely."

Medwed said she knew the school-to-prison pipeline within Champaign-Urbana is real, and there was a "high need" for groups that helped young men in particular.

That's what prompted her to float the idea early this semester to teachers, who then helped her select students for the group.

The selection process — a 20- to 40-minute interview with each of the nearly 30 proposed students — was meant to determine who would work best in the group.

Some, she said, might do better receiving individual help. Others might have had behavioral issues that interfere with the group norms, which Medwed said weren't numerous, but included respect and not cutting off other students.

In the end, she and the other teachers found 10 students who shared similar issues and whose chemistry blended well.

So they started meeting — with Medwed, social work intern Tzia Hibler and all 10 of the students unsure of what to expect.

"We said they could leave at any time, meaning if they tried the group once or twice, they could go ahead and leave at any time," Medwed said. "We encouraged them to try that one or two times, but no one dropped out after."

Instead, the seventh-grade boys adopted the themes of brotherhood, loyalty and empathy that Hibler and Medwed hoped to stress — hence the fraternity moniker.

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When John Phetchareun summed up his experience with the group, the brotherhood aspect stood out the most.

"We've got each other's backs," he said. "It's really strengthened our friendships."

Clark echoed the sentiment, saying he, too, was a once-skeptical convert.

"I was kind of hesitant at first," he said. "The first two or three weeks, I was hesitant to express myself. But after I got comfortable with the group, everybody was just talking and talking and talking, and we had to cut it off because we talked for a really long time."

Eventually, they knew one another well enough to have an idea what was going on internally with each other.

"What I want people to know is that we aren't like just some normal friendship group," Kai White said. "If we need help with somebody in this group, we can go to any of them."

For backup, Medwed said she invited Urbana Fire Marshal Phil Edwards and former Superintendent Preston Williams, among others, in as guest speakers.

Then, just before the group's final meeting of the year, she organized a trip to Leal Elementary, where the boys helped first-graders craft Mother's Day cards and read to them out loud. The dynamic had flipped: The young men, some of whom said they wanted more positive role models in their own lives, acted as role models for the first-graders.

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Medwed said she would like to see the program continued next year, with changes made accordingly — maybe a man helping to lead it, for instance.

"What's interesting from my perspective is that we have a lot of African-American males who do not feel engaged in the process of school and learning and do not feel they are getting a sense of belonging at school," she said. "I honestly think this group is the tip of the iceberg — we're talking nine or 10 students in it."

Teacher Candice Cobb, who helped Medwed vet the group, said that after its inception, she heard positive feedback during parent-teacher conferences. Medwed said teachers told her that they had seen changes in behavior and that none of the 10 students are failing any classes or in need of summer school.

"I'd say to incoming students that if you're feeling like you're alone or like teachers or friends can't help you, you can go to this kind of group, and you can have all these people who support you and your feelings," White said.

As he spoke during the group's final meeting about how these gatherings have helped him, Medwed couldn't keep from tearing up.

"I'm really happy to have been a part of this group," she said. "It touches my heart because a lot of people questioned whether you guys would benefit from this at all. This is probably the best experience I've had all year."

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