ELYRIA — It was eight months ago when Elyria High School Principal Tom Jama sounded the alarm, alerting community members to an increase in violent behavior by girls at the school.
His report, which detailed how black girls last school year were just 15 percent of the student body but responsible for 51 percent of the fights, was punctuated with vivid stories about fights he personally witnessed. It served as a catalyst to find ways to address the growing problem.
On Friday afternoon, a second report showed progress, even if incremental.
“I’m not saying it has ended, but it has improved tremendously,” Jama said at a monthly meeting of the Ladies on the Move in the Right Direction group, which started earlier this year for young girls.
The group’s efforts are led by teacher, EHS volleyball coach and mentor Jodie Johnson, parent and community activist Regan Phillips and Lorain County Urban League education coordinator Betty Halliburton, as well as others.
“I know we have a lot of work to do, but we are succeeding in a lot of areas,” Jama added. “I believe we are moving in the right direction.”
Jama said a more detailed report will be made to the group in the future, but overall suspensions, referrals from teachers for intervention and, above all, physical altercations involving students decreased in the last semester of last school year and the few weeks of this new school year.
The number of students coming to school late also has been reduced, he said.
“But the better news is academically Elyria High School received the highest marks on the Ohio Graduation Test in the history of the test,” Jama said. “It has been said that an urban high school can’t be an excellent school because it has too many other problems to deal with, but at Elyria we are proving that if you address students as a whole you can still be a success. You don’t have to forget one for the other.”
While it’s not official pending notification from the state Department of Education, Elyria High has a very high chance of receiving the coveted designation of “excellent” from the state when academic report cards are released.
A statewide investigation into attendance issues in other districts has delayed the release.
The formality of official data was not needed inside the teachers’ lunchroom at the school Friday. Just Jama thanking those in attendance for their support was enough to let them know their work was not in vain.
“I was in panic mode 12 months ago and, in January, when I started calling on all of you,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
But staying still and doing nothing was not an option.
“We are just a group of sisters being of service, doing what we need to do to help our young ladies,” Phillips said.
But before the group could help the girls who needed it the most, its members quickly learned they had to reach the girls and close the obvious gap that had formed between the generations.
“This thing among our girls in Elyria, in Lorain, in Oberlin and in Lorain County — because it’s all of our girls — we have lost that sense of connection, that sense of teaching each other basic values,” said Jeanine Donaldson, executive director of the Elyria YWCA.
Donaldson, who is prepping for her organization’s 100th anniversary in 2013, said she has looked at the history of community clubs and learned that clubs and programs that insulated girls and provided them with the kind of foundation that is lacking today has long been lost.
While she does not know at this point if Ladies on the Move will be able to shoulder the responsibility of picking up that torch, she said it’s an outlet that has been much needed.
Guest speaker for Friday’s lunch was Fran Frazier, creator of Rise Sister Rise. She once again traveled to Elyria to share her wisdom on girl aggression. Frazier was first brought to the school by Jama, who earlier this year was desperately searching for an expert voice on why girls fight.
Since then, she has been a behind the scenes supporter of the work in Elyria, and on Friday reminded the group their work was not done.
“Whatever happens in the community and in the home has to mirror what happens in school,” she said. “That’s where you come into play. Programs are good, but systems are better.
Going to camp is great, but how are the systems already in place going to support what they are learning.
“Many times the things our girls are angry about are out of their control,” Frazier said. “It literally has nothing to do with what’s going on at school.”
As Frazier spoke, Jama nodded enthusiastically. She was saying the very things that as an educator Jama has known for years, but could not express without the backlash of being accused of shrinking away from accountability in the school.
“We have to continue to pull together to do this until it’s done, and our girls understand we are here for them,” he said.
Kionna McIntosh, a mother of three teenagers, said she knew she wasn’t going anywhere.
“The fact that we all pulled together is at the essence of the change and progress we are already seeing,” she said.
Up next, the group hopes to work with Elyria Municipal Court Judge Gary Bennett and others to hold an event that looks at the perils of the justice system and ways to avoid incarceration, anger management techniques and conflict resolution.
For more information on Ladies on the Move in the Right Direction and future programs within the group, contact Regan Phillips at regan
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or email@example.com.