First Steps: A group of girls from the West Side step into a brighter future

Shaquocora Henderson has big plans for her future. “I’m going to be the CEO of my own company,” the eighth grader says. “I’m not going to work for anybody.” When asked about future colleges, she says without hesitation, “It’s still a battle between Harvard and Brown University.”

Her grand schemes may not be surprising on first glance–what smart middle-school kid doesn’t want to go to Harvard?–but, considering the odds against her, it’s downright shocking. Shaquocora is from Chicago’s West Side, where paths that lead to the Ivy League are scarce. She attends KIPP Ascend Charter School, a new middle school that serves students from the Austin, West Garfield, and North Lawndale neighborhoods. Through a stringent program that combines long school days from 7:25am to 5pm, a “no shortcuts, no excuses” attitude that punishes incomplete homework with lunch detention, and an emphasis on college from the first day of fifth grade, KIPP sent 100 percent of its first class of eighth grade graduates to college preparatory high schools, including Chicago magnet schools and highly selective boarding schools like Phillips Exeter and Andover Academy. In total, the fifty-seven graduates scored $1.1 million in scholarships.

KIPP’s academic support isn’t the only factor contributing to Shaquocora’s drive–she is also a member of KIPP’s step team, started by the school’s social worker Amaka Unaka in November 2007. The KIPP team is remarkably successful; they recently won second place at Cincinnati STOMPfest, a national competition open to middle- and high-school step teams. They lost to a team of seniors who had been practicing together for four years. Not bad for a group of eighth graders who had less than six months to prepare.

Stepping is best known in popular culture through its portrayal in movies like “Stomp the Yard,” which associates stepping with hip-hop dance and frat-boy antics. However, stepping is not dance, at least not in the way dance functions in the world of hip-hop. “[Stepping] is a form of self-expression through hand claps, stomping, and chants,” says KIPP’s co-coach Curtis Nash. Unaka describes it as “creating your own music through your body.” It originates from the South African tradition of Welly boot dancing, where gold miners danced in Wellington boots to parody the militaristic steps of the guards at the mines. Slaves transported the practice to the United States and created percussive rhythms that imitated the drums from their homelands, drawing appreciative crowds in town plazas. Stepping came into its own during the 1940s in the African-American fraternities of the National Pan-Hellenic Council. Popularized on college campuses, especially in the South, it began to be performed by schools, churches, and cheerleading squads.

Stepping doesn’t have much of a following in yankee-fied Chicago. Unaka learned it through her involvement with Delta Sigma Theta at the University of California, Berkeley and brought it with her to the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration (SSA). There, she met fellow SSA student Curtis Nash, who learned stepping through Alpha Phi Alpha as an undergraduate at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically black university. Unaka started an innovative program for the team at KIPP with a mission to “establish and maintain a nurturing community which develops girls into outstanding young ladies who demonstrate sound Character, Leadership in their daily endeavors, an optimistic Attitude, success in rigorous Scholarship, and constant Service to others and to their community.” Put it all together–character, leadership, attitude, scholarship, and service–and the KIPP step team equals “class.”

One requirement for staying on the step team is academic performance; if a girl gets a C, D, or an F on a report card, she is suspended from the team until she gets her grades up. “A lot of girls want to be on the team, so they have to get it together,” says eighth-grade stepper Princess Nelson. The result? “Approximately ninety percent of the team is on the honor roll,” says Unaka. “When I started, thirty percent were on the honor roll.”

The step team is also heavily involved in improving their community. Although they were not included in KIPP’s budget, they were able to raise enough money to offer $250 scholarships to graduating eighth-grade students and fund a prize for a Martin Luther King, Jr. oratorical competition, in addition to covering their own travel costs. They will be involved in a Habitat for Humanity effort to improve homes on the West Side this summer, and were awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to teach preschool children how to read, create a parent-child book club to encourage adult literacy and get parents involved in their children’s education, fund a monthly essay contest that awards books to the winners, and create African-American history bookshelves in the library.

Perhaps most important to the girls, the step team acts as an extended family that supports (and chastises) each other. Ms. Unaka “motivates them, teaches them right from wrong, and holds them accountable,” says Shawntel Mables, Shaquocora’s mother. “[The team does] things collectively–when someone is down, they all pick [her] back up. You never know what a person is going through at home–no one has a perfect life.” Shaquocora agrees: “Everyone has hard times, but we know how to get over them–that’s the point of sisterhood; we have troubles, but we overcome and become one again… Curtis plays the father role model. He tells us to work hard and put education first. Ms. Unaka breaks you down, but she does it because she loves you, and she always finds a way to bring you up again.” The “Divine Nine” African-American fraternities and sororities were formed to provide a support network for black college students in an era of segregation and brutal racism. Ms. Unaka re-creates this network with the step team, which she describes as “a mini-sorority.” She welcomes them to her home if they need help with homework and took them on a skiing trip “to build closer bonds between themselves as young black ladies.” For this team, fostering self-love and respect is even more important than performing well.

Of course, all this touchy-feely stuff is not all it takes to win a national competition. You have to be damn good at stepping, too. This is where Curtis Nash comes in. “I’m the best stepper in Chicago,” he declares. “I was trained in the South, and the South breeds the best steppers. I’m in the Beta Epsilon chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, and we have the best male step team. Therefore, any step team I coach is going to be the best. [KIPP] is the best team of all the middle and high schools in Chicago. I challenge anyone in Chicago to prove me wrong.” Nash proudly shows YouTube videos demonstrating Beta Epsilon’s mad chops, athleticism, and ability to work enormous crowds into a fever. The choreography is intricate and the dancers are impeccably precise. If this is what he’s teaching the girls, it’s no wonder they can do so well nationally. “I make sure the girls are intense,” he says. He stresses the benefits of camaraderie, staying healthy–“This is really a workout!” –and learning vital life skills. “Stepping is a microcosm of life,” Nash states. “You have to learn to deal with different kinds of people. They learn a form of humility they didn’t have before, learn to listen, and learn time management. This will follow them to high school, college, and beyond.”

Shaquocora, Princess, and the other girls on the step team could have easily fallen into another path. “I look at other young girls [Shaquocora’s] age out there on the corners drinking, getting high, not caring about life–it’s like they have no integrity and no self-control,” says Shawntel Mables. Unaka will have none of that: “Kids on my team have 15- or 16-year-old sisters with two kids and brothers who have been incarcerated since they were in the womb. It stops here.” Fortunately, none of the girls seem particularly interested in that fate. Princess dreams of being “a nurse, a model, a [news] anchor, or a chef” and loves going to school every day to study math. The girls are articulate, driven, and polite: they showered this lowly college student with “misses” and “ma’ams.” Shaquocora has a final message for the outside world: “If anything, never give up–that’s my message. There are a lot of young African-Americans with talent out there, and this is our chance to show them what we have. We need to stand up as a nation, as a community. We are that drive and that motivation.” With that attitude, Harvard and Brown will surely be battling over her one day.

Graphic by Lisa Bang and Ellis Calvin

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