Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
PHOTOS BY VENICE MINCEY

Honestly, I’m glad we did this because we’re leaving something behind for the seventh and sixth graders coming up. It’s hard for a lot of people to step up and change something, so I think we’re really helping them.”

A sage perspective coming from Bella Garcia, a preteen. Leaving a legacy is important for her. She wants things to be different for the girls who come after her. Arianna Martinez, an eighth grader at Fannin Middle School, feels the same way.

“At times, because I’m a girl or I’m a certain race, some people don’t see that I could accomplish certain goals I have, and they just don’t believe that I could do it.” Martinez says.

That was the prevailing feeling for several girls in the eighth grade at Fannin Middle School this year. Their male counterparts have had a regular mentorship program in place thanks to organizations like 101 Elite Men, a community group focused on empowering young men through mentorship, personal development and leadership training. Watching the boys leave class to meet with male leaders from the community, while they were left behind, was frustrating.

“We got together and just talked about how we didn’t like what was going on in the school,” classmate Micah Logan says. “The boys were getting certain advantages. It made the boys look like they were better than us. They could see they were getting these advantages, so they acted better than us, as well. So, we just thought we’d try to change it—at least try.”

Petitions and Connections

A social studies lesson about petitions gave the girls the inspiration they needed. They established their own petition, collected signatures, and made a formal presentation to their principal advocating for a female mentorship program. They’d need a group name, of course, so they decided to call themselves “The Founding Mothers.”

“You know, historically, our girls mature faster than our boys; they just have different needs, and in school specifically, they see things differently,” Fannin Middle School Principal Amy Sellmyer says. “They have different struggles. It’s something that they recognized as a gap. We recognized it as a gap, but we were just stuck on how to fix it. They were the ones who spearheaded the whole thing.”

After Sellmyer saw the work her students put in on the presentation and petition, she reached out for reinforcements.

“She called me and said, ‘I know you have community connections with women,’” says Lanitra Barringer, Amarillo Independent School District director of family and community engagement. “She told me about their petition. She told me how she wanted to give them a way to really express their feelings more positively, and she really wanted their ideas to come to fruition.”

Barringer dug into her contact list and delivered. She invited women from different sectors of the community to come and hear from the girls and collaborate on how they could mentor them. She knew they, like her, would be committed to the cause after they heard their stories. [Disclosure: Brick & Elm co-publisher Michele McAffrey is one of these mentors.]

“The ladies really poured into them that day, and it’s just grown from that,” she says. “Today, I told my parent involvement liaisons at the other Title I schools that they will have a database of professional women with their contact information and what niche they prefer to speak about, or if they prefer to just assist with activities. That will become AISD’s Title I Girls’ Day Initiative.”

Title I schools receive federal funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to provide additional support for students from low-income families. These funds are used to improve academic achievement and ensure all students have equal access to quality education. Title I schools often implement programs like extra tutoring, professional development for teachers and other educational resources to help students succeed. There are 46 Title I schools in AISD.

Barringer and her team created a curriculum that will roll out to those schools next school year. The hourlong sessions happen twice a month during the school’s built-in Response to Intervention period. The Girls’ Day Initiative will stay true to what the Fannin students intended. That’s important to Barringer.

“When the ladies were in the room and the girls presented, we all cried,” she says. “To see such leadership at a young age. To think about the leadership potential they have that they don’t even realize, how great they’re going to be later and how much of a difference they’re going to make in other women’s lives is just amazing. Unbelievable.”

Vulnerability and Feedback

Several of the adult women in the room reflected on the embarrassment they felt having never realized the lack of opportunity for middle school girls in AISD. Instead of making excuses, Barringer and Sellmyer took action.

“She really opened herself up to say, ‘Hey, I care enough about you,’” Barringer says. “So, this isn’t something that could happen at any school. They knew she could easily say, ‘This isn’t what school is about, and we can’t take our time to focus on this,’ but she let them really speak.”

Sellmyer’s open communication and vulnerability, Barringer says, is what makes her an exceptional leader for the students at Fannin Middle School.

“It’s evolved into them being able to recognize how to make change and how true change comes about,” Sellmyer says. “They were bold enough to stand up and say there was a problem, but also, they were reflective enough to take feedback.”

The girls have learned from the mentors how to dress professionally, how to speak professionally, how to eat, how to adjust their vocal tone and how to write presentations. The students, though, were adamant about having mentors who looked like them—women who could relate to their experiences because of their backgrounds.

“What we have to go through because of who we are as a person, different struggles they had to face because of what they look like and how society saw them as a person and treated them,” Martinez shares.

Circling Up

It’s worth noting the students come from different friend groups at school. They are racially diverse and interested in a variety of activities, but Sellmyer says she has been struck by their ability to see and support one another throughout the process.

“Middle schoolers’ social language at times can be cutting and hurtful toward each other,” the principal explains. “To see them circle up and say, ‘You are valued. I appreciate how you had a great idea.’ It wasn’t just, ‘You look pretty today.’ It was very tangible, specific things that they valued about their contribution to this group.”

The lessons and topics cover a wide range—social changes, dating violence, responsibility, vision boards, goals and dreams—but the girls themselves drive the subject matter.

“Most of the topics are about how we can put this into our future, but we can also put it into the present,” says Devonee Romo, one of the participants. “They are things we want to learn before we become adults. We want to learn about hormones, actions, reactions and emotions. Our emotions impact the way we learn and experience things. So we want to learn how we control them in environments where we need to control them, and how we can learn how to communicate better with other people in a professional way. We
want to learn how we can put that into our own perspective, and that’s a lot coming from a group of 13- and 14-year-olds who don’t know exactly everything.”

There is still plenty to learn for these Founding Mothers, but they agreed they are more prepared than ever for what they’ll face in high school. The lessons they’ve learned about friendship, justice and equity are forever etched in their educational experiences. Their commitment to one another is inextricably linked within the walls of Fannin and beyond. A legacy to be proud of, indeed.  

Author

  • Meaghan Collier

    Meaghan works in communications and marketing for Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Amarillo and spent 15 years as an anchor, reporter and producer in local television news. Meaghan is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. She and husband Cody live in Amarillo with their dog, Bradford.

    View all posts