Davenport’s Madison Elementary School is on fire, in a good way — since two new programs there are sparking creativity, community, self-esteem, love of reading and human potential among many African-American students there.

The school, at 116 E. Locust St., is partnering with the African American Leadership Society (AALS) of United Way Quad Cities, and several volunteers on these two potentially life-changing efforts:

Girls’ Mentorship Program – Girls on Fire
Pre-adolescent girls face a variety of problems that drastically differ from their male counterparts. Social media and pop culture are placing more pressure on girls, earlier in their lives, to look and act like adults, creating new levels of anxiety and self-consciousness that, in turn, interfere with the students’ education.

The Girls Mentorship Program aims to provide a safe space for young girls (grades 5 and 6) to convene weekly and discuss the ongoing struggles of being an adolescent in a society saturated by distorted, unrealistic social media standards.

Books & Barbers
When you look good, you feel good.

Sponsored by Quad City Bank & Trust, this program is inspired by old school, barbershop mentorship. Powered by male barbers and role models in the community, Books & Barbers aims to provide a safe space for young men at Madison.

Each month students will receive a no-cost haircut, literacy and hygiene kit and one-on-one time with dedicated volunteers.

The “Girls on Fire” group recently compiled and released a video (see it here) of their reading an Amanda Gorman poem, “The Power of Firsts,” which begins:

Power unfurls in a girl at school
like the first pages of a book unwritten,
She’s a story waiting to ignite.

An educated girl is like the question the first rain
tosses at the earth
after the drought —
Are you ready to start again?

For the International Day of the Girl in 2017, then-19-year-old Gorman — the first-ever Youth Poet Laureate of the United States — composed “Day of the Girl: The Power of Firsts,” a poem highlighting the resilience of girls and women. The AALS (which began here in 2019) aims to instill resilience, self-confidence and empowerment among the Madison students, to help close the expanding racial opportunity gap in the Quad Cities.

The African American Leadership was started by United Way Quad Cities in 2019.

Closing the gap means reducing and ultimately eliminating disparities and opportunity differentials for human potential and economic contributions by people of color, according to unitedwayqc.org. While 27% of white QC students do not read at grade level by 3rd grade, 57% of Black students in the area do not, according to United Way. Also, 59% of Black households in the QC do not make a living wage.

United Way’s AALS seeks to “foster the next generation of local Black leaders and give every African-American child in every Quad Cities neighborhood an equal opportunity to succeed.”

United Way president/CEO Rene Gellerman recently praised Kayla Babers, the AALS manager, for leading the new programs, noting of the video:

“It’s the culminating project from weeks of relationship building, mentoring and learning with 5th – 6th grade girls at Madison Elementary School, an AALS Community School partner,” Gellerman posted. “The girls studied Amanda Gorman, discussed what her poetry means to them and then recited this poem for a video project.

Rene Gellerman is president/CEO of United Way of the Quad Cities.

“I’m grateful to Kayla and our partners at Love Girls Magazine for injecting belief and hopefulness in the lives of the students at Madison,” Gellerman said. “Belief and hopefulness are the two most powerful determinants to success and these girls will be closer to developing their full potential because of this Girls Mentoring program made possible by the generous support of our community. I am ecstatic to have Kayla and AALS leaders on our team – leading by example, opening doors and working to make an impact in the Quad Cities.”

Passionate about the programs

Babers is a 28-year-old Rock Island High alum (and Illinois State graduate), whose younger sister Jasmine founded Love Girls Magazine at age 15 (she’s now 26) as a way to combat bullying and promote self-esteem among young women. Among Jasmine’s many awards was in 2015, when she was named a winner of the prestigious Peace First Awards, which included a $25,000 two-year fellowship prize.

AALS manager Kayla Babers at United Way offices in Bettendorf, Dec. 22, 2021 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Kayla has been on the magazine’s board since 2013. She was a web coordinator at Deere & Co., from 2018 until early 2020, and started with United Way in May 2020. The AALS started in 2019, and Babers’ position was unfilled for several months before she came on.

“It was stressful; I’m an extroverted introvert,” she said this week of starting during COVID. “I’m a visual person, I like to see things. So being at home behind a computer screen, it was really hard to connect with people and feel the vibe. It was rough.”

United Way’s AALS is fairly common in the southern states, Babers said. “We’re the only organization like ours here in the Quad Cities,” she said. “There’s not a one-size-fits all.”

“One of the reasons I’m so passionate about the mentorship program, for boys and girls, is growing up, me and my sister were the only African-American girls in the whole school,” she said of attending Rock Island’s Eugene Field Elementary.

“Your whole community doesn’t have to look like you, but it would have been helpful to have a few people to relate to, on a physical level,” Babers said. “It was a little difficult.”

Kayla Babers grew up in Rock Island and graduated from Rock Island High School in 2011.

Some people in the community don’t feel a need for AALS, since it singles out one population to help, Babers said. She said when a traditionally marginalized or excluded group is included, we all benefit.

“I can only do one at a time,” she said. “If I could save the world, I definitely would. Baby steps.”

The education gaps among Black students in the area were magnified after the 2020 COVID shutdowns, requiring remote learning.

“We’ve seen big drop in reading, math and sciences,” Babers said. “Things are just so hard to do virtually. And when you think of the systemic inequities that take place in our communities, they’re just built in, not necessarily anyone’s fault. A lot of kids didn’t have access to the Internet, or a quiet place to learn.”

The new programs stemmed from the need for strong mentorship for K-6 students at Madison, which was chosen by United Way in 2019 as a partner school with many challenges – regarding education, income and health.

“They wanted a school to mimic the population we wanted to serve,” Babers said. “They’re 100% free and reduced lunch; that area of the school is low-income.”

Getting support from community

Babers sought support from local organizations, AALS offered funding support, and they brought together volunteers to work with students.

Davenport barber Sherwin Robinson gives a haircut to a Madison Elementary student.

“Books and Barbers” launched to have African-American male mentors, since Madison doesn’t really have Black male teachers. “We wanted to bring that into the community, while also providing a needed service.”

AALS worked with the school to address their needs, including hygiene, she said. “A lot of kids come to school and don’t take off their hats and hoods, which leads to behavioral problems, and it stems from low self-esteem.”

The young men (K-6) meet for an hour or two once a month, and get a free haircut. They have six barbers and 10 kids, with the goal to reach 25 kids in February.

With mentors, they talk about what it’s like growing up and their concerns, Babers said. “It’s to have that guy time with other mentors,” she said.

Miguel Rosas was the second barber to volunteer, and Sherwin Robinson (who’s on the AALS steering committee) was the first one, and operates a barber shop across from the school.

“A lot of the barbers were from Davenport, and said, ‘I could see myself in these kids,’ and you could just tell by their interaction, they just vibed together,” Babers said.

“We want to make sure students of color are getting what they need, but we also don’t want to exclude anyone at Madison,” she said. “Every kid is welcome to that kind of family camaraderie situation.”

They work with the Davenport Public Library to choose culturally diverse books, that have characters that look like the boys. They can keep the books they get each month, and also get a hygiene kit.

“We’re hoping through this mentorship that parents will feel comfortable, I can send my kid to Sherwin after school, right across the street,” Babers said. “I’m always thinking of, how can we improve the community relationship? It seems to be working so far.”

Amber Carlson of Davenport Public Library (standing, right) speaks to a “Girls on Fire” group at Madion.

Amber Carlson, Davenport Public Library’s Youth Services and Programming Librarian, had met Babers from various partnerships between the library and Love Girls, including “Girls on Fire” conferences and several book events and author visits. Kayla’s team reached out to Carlson to help with Madison, and the librarian hosted a mini book club for the award-winning “Other Words for Home” by Jasmine Warga, about a middle-school girl who moves to the U.S. from Syria.

“The audiobook is especially amazing, and we included listening to parts of the audiobook in our book club activities,” Carlson said, noting she worked with the Books & Barbers program too.

“I am especially excited to get Jason Reynolds’ (the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature who visited the Quad Cities in 2019) new book in their hands,” she said this week by email, of “Stuntboy, in the Meantime.”

“Kayla is fantastic to work with as community partner to the Library, but, even more important to me, she knows how to work with kids and make them feel as passionate about reading as she does,” Carlson said. “She makes the students feel safe and comfortable with opening up and brings out their inner stars.

“For example, we asked the students to recite sections of poems during the second session of our book discussion on ‘Other Words for Home.’ Many of them were nervous about performing in front of the group, but Kayla helped them prepare, cheered them on and even recited with them when asked,” she said. “The feeling in the room after everyone performed was so confident and joyful.”

Focusing on female empowerment

At Madison, the “Girls on Fire” program centers on female empowerment through creativity, Babers said. “Writing, podcasts, videography – all those things require comprehension, which translates to being able to read. That’s one of our biggest initiatives at Madison.”

“Girls on Fire came with a very creative, inclusive curriculum and that’s how we settled on using them for our first round of girls’ mentorship.” Her mother, Teresa Babers, and the Love Girls board came up with the curriculum.

Love Girls Magazine founder Jasmine Babers on the cover of a 2017 issue.

“Girls on Fire” is a writing and storytelling program produced by the LGM staff. It is available to girls of all ages, providing an environment where girls can support each other and make friends.

Kayla wanted to offer a video component for the Madison girls (in 5th and 6th grades), and a way to boost their self-confidence and leadership skills. They started filming in mid-September and finished Dec. 1.

The Iowa Women’s Foundation came in and did a site visit, Babers said. That group of 25 girls has met once a week for 30-45 minutes, and got black T-shirts that say “Girls With Dreams Become Women With Vision.”

Madison Elementary students in the “Girls on Fire” program.

“The girls love it; they wear them every week for the program,” she said, noting they’re working on a shirt for the boys.

Mentors have included Mikhayla Hughes-Shaw (host of Local 4’s “Loving Living Local”); Teresa Moore, who owns a local theater company; Becky Nakashima Brooke, a Reiki Master Teacher and Thai Bodywork Practitioner, and Jamie Walker Sallis, member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, who leads and facilitates the PEARLS program at Williams intermediate School.

Many of the Madison girls didn’t know Black women could host TV shows, since they so rarely have seen that in the past, Babers said. Some girls said, “I want to start a podcast, a TikTok; I want to be like Mikhayla,” she recalled. “It was great.”

Mikhayla Hughes-Shaw (former Miss Iowa and current Local 4 host) with a group of Madison Elementary girls.

Ashley Allen of Augustana College took the girls on a campus tour. A Black Davenport native, she’s director of the school’s Office of Student Inclusion and Diversity.

“A lot of the girls, they have the aptitude – it’s just knowing these doors are open for them to walk through,” Babers said of college. “Representation is a big component of our mentorship. And the Quad Cities is diverse – in the school system, for these students, it’s important to have people who look like you and came from where you came from and can relate to the situations you’re living.”

The group was very into Amanda Gorman, and the Madison students have been admirers of her, especially seeing her deliver her poem at President Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, at age 22.

American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 20, 2021. (Photo by PATRICK SEMANSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The goal is to keep “Girls on Fire” through the school year, and they’ll tweak things to what the students need, Babers said. “We just wanted to be an outlet and safe space for the girls.”

“It’s important to note, these kids aren’t dumb. They’re very intelligent,” she said. “Teachers are doing a great job; they’re met with an unimaginable task. We never thought we’d be in a pandemic for two years. Us being additional support to teachers, trying to take off some of that extra that’s been put on them, and doing the outreach – giving the girls an outlet.

“The data shows, when kids do sports or music or theater, their graduation rates go up and up,” Babers said. “Showing the girls a variety of outlets of where they can be creative, and take it home. Share it with your brothers and sisters; your mom and dad; your guardian, your cousin.”

Building self-esteem is vital for most things in life.

“A main thing we have with Girls on Fire is to combat those negative body image issues, and internal issues that are constantly being thrown at them, every day, all day,” she said. “We just want to show the girls that how you are is just fine.”

The recent naming of Andrea Talentino as Augustana College’s first female president is “a win for the team, to see women taking over,” Babers said.

Madison teacher would like to see program every day

Allyson Knanishu, an ESL teacher at Madison who’s also taught social studies at Rocky (2010-2017), is thrilled with what Babers and AALS are accomplishing.

“What she’s doing is vital to the Quad Cities, to our community,” Knanishu said Thursday. “She’s providing space and holding space for students that are often intentionally overlooked.”

“If we could have Kayla do programs for kindergarteners through sixth-graders, Monday through Friday, I would love that.”

Singer-songwriter Charlotte Boyer of Rock Island performs at Madison.

“She’s bringing representation. She’s bringing voice and empowerment,” Knanishu said. “So to give the students the opportunities to meet guests from our community, professional women and professional men — anybody that has the heart to be with our students and shine the light bulb that we all see. So, Kayla is providing that once a week. And I can’t tell you, I don’t work with 5th and 6th-grade girls, so I don’t even know the students, but they would come up to me and say, I wish Wednesday could be every day.”

“It’s nice to see the girls be comfortable and feel safe,” she said. “I’m sorry and it hurts my heart that sometimes that’s the only 30 minutes or 60 minutes where they feel that.”

“Getting the students up and moving, getting them to recite poetry. Exposing them to representation, people who look like them,” Knanishu said. “Providing the public library to come, allowing them to be creative and again, that holding a safe space. It takes time. So this is just a pilot program, and what they have done from September until now is just amazing.”

AALS would like to expand to other schools in the area, hopefully in Rock Island, Babers said, noting she went to Eugene Field and Washington Junior High. When people give to United Way, they can specify where the funds go – like AALS, she said.

“We get so much investment support to AALS, which is amazing,” she said. “We are able to do everything we want to do, plus more, thanks to the Quad-City community.” Donations help cover costs of books, hygiene kits and field trips, example, so it is no cost for the students. “The dollars are imperative, to make sure the program is sustainable,” Babers said.

To learn more about AALS, click here.