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Dakota Hankins, who plans to be a lawyer, teacher, singer and dancer, likes that homework is the first order of business.

J’ashe Williams, a future lawyer, teacher and singer, is thrilled that that are no boys.

Madysen Vaughn, who plans to be a professional singer, feels her confidence growing.

And virtually all in this group of 21 4th and 5th-graders said they feel themselves developing into leaders and better students. And all said they are learning about proper eating habits and exercise through a leadership program sponsored by the Mississippi Road Map to Health Equity.

The girls, students at Jackson’s G.N. Smith Elementary School who range as academic achievers, cover the gamut. They are being groomed as communicators and leaders and are learning fitness and nutrition three days a week at the Roadmap.

There also are a lot of by-products, including presentation skills, etiquette and self-love, said Beneta Burt, the Roadmap’s executive director.

“So many young people fail because they are unable to communicate,” said Burt, Jackson School Board president. “What we are doing at the Roadmap is helping make sure these young ladies get opportunities in their community to grow and prosper.”

G.N. Smith is located a few blocks from the Roadmap. Burt said she asked the school for a variety – from high achievers, to average, to those who were struggling – when choosing participants in the leadership program.

Given a report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which concluded that black students in Mississippi are less prepared for college than their white counterparts, perhaps this program can be a model for others. The study found that only 8 percent of black 4th graders were proficient in reading,

It is no accident, Burt said, academics come first.

The girls are an ambitious bunch of energy who aspire to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, singers and dancers. They are well-mannered – yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am and no ma’am. They walk, run and exercise in straight lines across the Roadmap’s parking lot. They are already pledging to make a difference.

“This program is great,” said Tori Green, 9, who wants to be a singer and a doctor. “We get to learn about being healthy, how to be leaders, how to work with others and how to come together as a family,”

Said Jada Beasley, 10, who wants to be an entertainer: “I didn’t know all these girls at first. Now I do. I like the way they teach us to eat and exercise and I like the way we do different activities.”

Parents and teachers say they see a difference already.

“Their grades are improving. They are speaking out more in class,” said Lashonda Lewis, a G.N. Smith  teacher who also works in with the leadership program. “They can’t work together as much when they are at school. But when they are here, they work together on all of their schoolwork.”

Ruby Canerdy said the program is perfect for her daughter, Alexis Cornelius.

“I was skeptical at first but we have to allow for different spaces,” Canerdy said. “This is a nice space, a nice environment. We couldn’t have found a better place. I’ve seen a big difference in Alexis.

“She’s more respectful. She talks about the teachers and the girls that are over her. And her homework has improved.”

Benjamin Torry, Smith’s principal, said the Roadmap’s leadership program has been good for the girls and the school.

“It’s making a difference,” Torry said. “We’ve seen a difference in terms of positive and negative interaction with our girls. Bullying has decreased. We’ve had a dramatic difference in the amount of discipline toward our girls. I think it is attributable to the Roadmap.”

Other voices from the program:

Simone Pippins, 10, who plans to own a restaurant, design hairstyles and start a clothing line: “The Roadmap helps us talk in front of crowds and to not be afraid to talk to people.”

Previous Stewart, 10, who plans to be a basketball star before becoming a teacher: “The Roadmap teaches us how to be leaders, how to better take exams and how to be good leaders.”

Je’Kiriya Williams, 10, who plans to teach: “We get to do fun activities, learn about leadership and we get to learn how to talk with confidence in front of people.”

Zykarol Winford, 9, who plans to be an educator: “The Roadmap has taught me about different kinds of healthy food, they teach us the importance of exercise, and it is teaching me not to be shy, to have more confidence.”

La”Zerica Harris, plans to be a minister, 10: “We do our homework. We have nice snacks, we exercise and we do fun activities and we plant fruit and vegetables.”

Amelia Chaney, 11, an aspiring dancer: “We are learning to eat healthy. We exercise outside and we do our homework.”

Alexis Cornelius, 11, a future physician: We exercise, we do fun activities and we are learning about eating healthy.”

Honor Payne, 9: “We are being taught how to lead. We are being taught to eat healthy and we are learning the importance of exercise,” said Payne, who wants to be a police officer and a physician. “Doctors save people’s lives.”

Krishna Brown, 11, who plans to study medicine: We are learning not to be followers but to be leaders. The Roadmap has helped with our homework. It’s teaching us to depend on each other and how to work together in groups.

Destiny Booker, who plans to be a veterinarian: “The program has been great for me because I am a creative person. I get to make things and learn more.”

Roadmap starts leadership program for girls at G.N. Smith

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