It’s 1989. Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” tops the charts. George H.W. Bush is president. Nintendo releases the Game Boy. And Ruth White, an English teacher and academic adviser for minority students at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, is troubled by what she sees happening among Black students.
“I came to understand that many of our Black students were not really aware of why they were in high school, what high school could lead to, why they should take certain courses, why they shouldn’t be mad all the time, how they could improve their academic standing, and why that should happen,” she said.
Improving Black student outcomes would become White’s cause. To that end, she founded The Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success, a nonprofit organization that provides primarily Black students with culturally specific instruction and academic rigor, and it has been serving students for 33 years.
“Students who don’t know who they are — don’t have a foundation in their culture — are vulnerable,” said White, now retired and serving as the Academy’s executive director.
The Academy’s mission is to instill pride in and understanding of African American culture as a tool to encourage academic achievement and positive behaviors toward post-secondary matriculation and productive citizenship, according to its website. The Academy, which features a six-week summer program, will hold its 15th annual gala celebrating the Harlem Renaissance at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 12 at the Olympic South Side Theater in Cedar Rapids. The cost is $60. Proceeds benefit Academy programs, which have served some 3,000 students since its inception.
Mariama Ceesay and Sora Sogur’s 13-year-old son, Malick Sogur, has attended the Academy for a year. Sora Sogur said his son was not only exposed to topics like engineering and robotics, but also to something even more powerful.
“It’s important for the young kids to kind of understand history — the way it should be — rather than just the mostly sanitized history that we teach in schools,” he said.
Malick Sogur agreed. He said the Academy introduced him to topics he hasn’t learned about yet, like programming, API modules and the 1619 Project, by Iowa native Hannah Nikole Jones.
“In our schools, we often find that literature or history, or even math and science, does not include us,” White said. “So what we have discovered is that it’s very helpful for kids to understand that there’s a robust, vibrant, tenacious history that everybody should know. But whether everybody does or not, they should.”
The Academy begins recruiting students in February for its summer program, which is held on the Mount Mercy University campus, and is run by White, five other educators and an intern. Enrollment ranges between 25 and 45 students. White’s team also works on a monthly basis with Academy students who attend Cedar Rapids schools. White described the transition from middle to high school as a “dangerous time.” The goal is for students to attend the summer program every year of their high school careers, she said.
The summer program focuses on the following skills:
Being on time
Having your materials
Being willing to participate
“And then those skills are taught through an Afro-centric curriculum — literature, history, math, science and post-secondary,” said White, who developed the program.
The Academy also has programs for elementary and middle schoolers, White said, explaining that ”we will have what I call a safety net for our students from elementary though high school.”
The Academy also prioritizes recruiting African American educators. According to the Iowa Department of Education's 2021 Condition of Education report, minority teachers comprise 2.8% of Iowa's teachers.
Sora Sogur, who identifies himself as African, reports that when he picks his son up from school, he’s used to his son saying that “school was OK” or “school was good.” But when he picked Malick Sogur up from the summer program, the opposite happened.
“The first thing I observed . . . he’s excited to talk about the topics. I’m driving the car and he’s trying to tell me all the stories and things they learned in class, which tells me that it helps them grow their confidence, which is also good for them,” he said.
Sora Sogur also believes it’s because his son is surrounded by “comfort,” explaining that, “when they go to those classes they see people like them — teaching them.”
It also provides students with examples of adults of color who are “high achievers,” who have advanced degrees, he said.
“That exposure allows them to see that, ‘Hey, if these guys can do it, I can do it or I can do better,’” Sogur said. “So that exposure is very important to them. Because normally in a regular school here in Iowa, it’s very limited where they will go to a class and see a teacher of color or a minority.”
According to White, longtime supporters consider the Academy the “best thing since sliced bread.” Academy alumni work in a variety of sectors, with some attending two- and four-year colleges. Two Academy graduates who attended Academy programming every summer during high school are enrolled at Princeton University, she said.
Parents also have tasks to complete at the Academy. They must attend orientation, student conferences and a closing ceremony. While the coronavirus pandemic has caused some disruptions, White said they’re “building” back the parental involvement piece.
Malick Sogur, who described his teachers as funny and cool, enjoyed a trip Academy students took to the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids to see Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, by Emmy award-winning composer Joel Thompson, about the last words of seven Black men killed by police brutality.
“It was really emotional,” Malick Sogur said.
The Academy has also taken students on trips to Memphis, Tennessee, Washington D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland.
"Being able to see, experience, and learn about greatness at the Academy provided me with confidence and pride for being Black. What the Academy gifted me was validation that my feelings of being great were genuine and honest." — (Excerpt from a paper entitled "Belonging" By Callie Brown, Academy student.
White said her family was the first Black family to live in Rantoul, Illinois, where “nothing represented me.” Her father, a pharmacist, and her stay-at-home mother pushed education and the family attended a Black church. Even so, representation lacked until she was a graduate student at the University of Iowa where she earned a Ph.D. in English, she said.
It was then she had the opportunity to study under famed Black English professor Darwin Turner. “It was like the sun came out,” she said. “I never had a Black teacher until that time.”
Without their culture and heritage, people live “a half existence” but when they have it: “It’s filling,” she said. “You know who you are. It gives you a sense that you are capable, and you can do anything — persevere.”
Iowa has about 131,972 Blacks, which is 4% of the state’s population, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. About 14,338 Blacks live in Cedar Rapids, comprising 10.4% of the population. In the Cedar Rapids School district, Blacks make up 9.6% and Latinos make up 4.5% of the student population, according to census data.
In March, 24/7 Wall St., a financial news and opinion company in Delaware, ranked Iowa as the third worst state for Blacks based on governmental data. Living in one of the whitest states in the country, Black Iowans experience persistent racial disparities.
Last year, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed H.F. 802, a law prohibiting the teaching of “divisive concepts” such as saying that the U.S. and Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist. This year, Reynolds has pushed diverting money from public schools to private schools. Some Iowa school districts became mired in controversy over banning books by people of color and LGBTQ authors, while the suburban Johnston School district recently approved the controversial far-right Turning Point USA school club. These trends are evident across the country.
Students often lament not learning about African-American contributions that White said are “instrumental, if not crucial to the development of this country.”
“And when you have a 15 to 17 year-old who realizes that, they sit up straighter, their eyes get bright and they say: ‘Wow, and I’m willing and ready to go back to school and raise a hand and participate in class and say: ‘Are you aware that . . .’”
Their newfound knowledge is a foundation that will strengthen them as they move forward, she said.
“I don’t know of a kid ever, including myself when I was a child, who hasn’t had some kind of unpleasant encounter around race, whether it was the N-word, whether it was a teacher not acknowledging them, whether they didn’t get to read anything that reflected them,” she said. “So, the Academy tries to address that omission, that gap.”
The Academy also hosts regular Critical Conversations via Zoom for anyone who wants to learn about African American culture.
Malick Sogur will be featured in a video vignette about the famed tap-dancing Nicholas brothers during the Academy’s 15th annual gala, its annual fundraiser and the primary source of its operating budget.
“My favorite part was probably the editing,” said Malick Sogur, of preparing for the gala. “Just because you got to watch videos while you do your homework.”
White said the gala is an “immersive experience” like a cocktail party where attendees can mingle. The gala explores the Harlem Renaissance with a quintet, poetry, art, a silent auction, performances and video vignettes from students about the era. Food will be prepared by Academy alumna and award-winning chef Crystal Bounds-Howard, who has researched food from the era. Cocktails will also be served. The evening will begin with the Black National Anthem.
The Academy’s future
After 33 years, White said she has begun working on succession plans. She credits the Academy’s longevity to one thing: “I think tenacity. Just knowing that it’s still needed, and I’m still standing up.”
As the Academy moves forward, White said it’s important its focus isn’t “diluted.”
“We say we are unapologetically focusing on Black, Brown and biracial students,” she explains. “Do we discriminate? No . . . Anybody can come, but you have to understand we are talking about Black culture.”
Time: 5:30 p.m.
Date: May 12
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Top Banner: Photo courtesy of Ruth White.