06/03/13 — Learning to shine

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Learning to shine

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on June 3, 2013 1:46 PM

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Lania Riddick is crowned Miss Dillard School Pearls Queen 2013 during the Pearls Pageant Friday night at Dillard Middle School. The Pearls program was developed by retired teacher Sharon Bell to teach middle school girls skills to become successful women.

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Girls go through a dance number during the Pearls graduation program Friday night at Dillard Middle School.

Retired teacher Sharon Bell has always believed that young people are diamonds in the rough -- or pearls.

Several years ago, witnessing some of the challenges faced by middle school students, she decided to do something about it.

"The self-esteem and the behavior is such an issue, it really hurts me, just to see that they can be a beautiful young lady, but they need some guidance," she said.

Part of a sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, or AKA, whose founders were "Pearls," Mrs. Bell modeled a program after the moniker three years ago at Dillard Middle School, targeting eighth-grade girls. When she retired, though, the program stalled.

"So when I came back to tutor, I decided to start it up again, so this is our first year," she said.

Nearly a dozen teachers at the school have supported her in the endeavor, mentoring the girls and assisting where needed. The school's graduation coach, Rashad Hinnant, also launched a similar initiative for the male eighth-grade students, called The Black Onyx Society.

"We have been taking them places, field trips, had people come in and talk with them about things -- goal-setting, going to college, we have talked to them about behavior, STDs, teen pregnancy," Mrs. Bell said.

And while some of the sessions have centered around "girl stuff" like hair and makeup, essentially it all boils down to an attitude adjustment, the educator said.

"I really wanted to work with these girls on behavior," she said. "It's been a really, really tough thing to do. These girls, they're basically from disadvantaged situations. It's been so hard to try to keep that positive thinking coming through.

"I'm very proud of them. I think they've done great. We started out with 40. We now have 25. I'm pleased with the 25."

The group typically met after school. For some, that was problematic since they didn't have transportation.

There were other challenges as well. It was not just a social club or a fun thing to do.

"They have to maintain good grades to stay in the program," she explained.

And they had to earn their "pearls," six to be exact, before completing the program. Each miniature gem is placed onto the girls' name tag, all leading up to a shared goal.

"I took them to a debutante ball, and they said they wanted to do that," Mrs. Bell said

There was something about seeing all those young ladies dressed up in long, flowing white gowns that struck a chord with the students, she said. So she decided to turn that dream into a reality, helping the girls work toward their own Cinderella moment.

The "coming-out night" took place on Friday evening at the school, with participants escorted by members of the Black Onyx group, as they presented a fashion show, skits and other entertainment before a gathering of family and friends.

But the benefits of the year-long effort will linger long after the dresses have been returned to the closets.

"For me, it seems like I have got very far from the beginning of the school year," student Ebony Bryant said. "I have been through some things in the school year, but I have gotten past it. I have adjusted my goals for the school year.

"Just one night, I can feel like a princess. You're always special, but just that one night you can really feel special."

"It's fun. It helps (you) to become like a lady, making you become a better person," added classmate, Alexius Turner, 13. "This year, I was new, and it helped me meet some girls. We bonded, went on trips and stuff."

Nylivia Reid, who aspires to become a choreographer, praised Mrs. Bell for teaching her much through the program.

"I used to be shy a lot. I have grown out of that," she said. "I used to be goofy and some of my Pearl sisters helped me know that there's times that you can play and (times to be) serious."

Another by-product has been becoming better-equipped for the future.

"At high school, you have to be more mature. You have got to have good grades if you want to be successful," Alexius said.

"My grades have gone up, because I wanted to do the coming-out night," Ebony said. "Being a Pearl helped me like experience more things, so I have extra things on my record going to college."

Eymonie Atkinson, who plans to pursue a career as a photographer, agreed.

"Pearls got me into new things. It helps me like with my college applications, put it on my resume," she said. "And it gives you a lot of confidence in yourself. You have got a lot of people watching you."

"To me, it means that I worked this hard and I want to show my parents, Mrs. Bell, the other people (in the audience) what we have learned and what she's taught us," Alexius said.