Student school board member looks to help the community
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Makayla Dawkins, a senior at James Hillhouse High School, has been much too busy for the beach.
Over the summer, 17-year-old Dawkins — one of two student members of the Board of Education — took two five-week summer courses at Yale University as one of six recipients of the Shafer Scholarship and learned she received the Yale Bassett Award for Community Engagement, one of 15 recipients from a pool of 970.
Dawkins has something of a routine: Hillhouse Independent Study Coordinator Dominique Argo approaches her with opportunities she finds for exceptional students and Dawkins puts her record of academics and community service to paper. Dawkins didn’t flinch when describing the process by which she applies to many of these programs: sending along transcripts, test scores, essays and letters of recommendations and participating in multiple rounds of interviews.
Further, although Dawkins has been recognized for her accomplishments within the city limits multiple times, either by Yale University or the school board, one of her most recent triumphs brought her to Colorado for one week this summer.
Dawkins is one of 18 students across the country this year accepted to the Bezos Scholars program, a community leadership program run by the Bezos Family Foundation, the private foundation owned by Jackie and Mike Bezos, parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
The yearlong program began with Dawkins and an educator mentor — biology teacher Rachele Thomas — taking an all-expenses paid trip to the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado where they spent three days meeting noteworthy people such as New York Times columnist David Brooks, “grit” advocate Angela Duckworth, and Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani during three days of participating in leadership training as Dawkins began to develop a sustainable community service project she could lead.
“I felt like my heart was glowing,” Dawkins said of the opportunity to view panels with director Ava DuVernay, the #MeToo social movement founder Tarana Burke and former presidential candidate and senator John Kerry. “I was in awe.”
She recalled that Aspen’s mornings were cold, the afternoons were warm and “the altitude was kicking our butts.”
Dawkins said her idea for a community service project began when she and Thomas began to think about gun violence and emotional trauma in New Haven and the impact it has on students’ mental health.
While in Aspen, both Dawkins and Thomas learned about a number of gun homicides taking place back in New Haven that summer.
The two developed a concept that “healthy communities equal positive living” as Dawkins began thinking of how she could leverage the $2,000 grant, renewable for a second year, into a mental health awareness week.
“I wanted to create a space to be vulnerable,” she said.
That means some time shortly before AP exams, she wants to run an entire week of mental health programs at James Hillhouse High School, which she hopes could potentially spread throughout the district in the future: Mindfulness Monday, Trauma-healing Tuesday, Wellness Wednesday, Therapeutic Thursday and “Funday Friday.”
Thomas said the two have brainstormed ideas involving yoga and meditation, poetry, music and dance.
Dawkins, who said mental health services and dedicated educators at school helped guide her through her own mother’s death, said placing attention on mental health is more important than ever after the school board voted to lay off a number of guidance department employees, giving many of the counselors that remained case loads from multiple schools.
“I think it is even more important now to put focus on this,” she said.
Thomas said the school had a trauma team program that no longer exists.
“Her goal is to create something sustainable,” Thomas said. “If the school agrees to Funday Friday, we would want to open it up to the community and to stakeholders and to address issues in a positive manner.”
The Bezos Scholar program also provided leadership training for Thomas and other educator mentors.
“They want to cultivate educators as well to help us become leaders in the community,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful experience to see, even in that one week, how much Makayla matured.”
Dawkins said she always viewed Thomas as a mentor since she had her for biology as a sophomore, but she believes the two have been brought together as two people passionate about the betterment of the community.
Currently, Dawkins is working on a grant proposal to the Bezos Family Foundation to provide funding for a community outreach program, which would extend the viability of her mental health week program after she graduates in June.
She announced at the most recent school board meeting that she was selected as one of two students to serve on the state Board of Education, the second in three years after Hillhouse alumna Coral Ortiz. She said she is set to be sworn in next month.
Although the city charter does not permit student members of the New Haven school board to have an official vote, Dawkins said she identified the state Board of Education as an opportunity to use her voice to make a change. Too often, she said, she hears school board members lament low funding for New Haven’s schools from the state.
“I thought: Why can’t I have a seat at the table?” she said. “Our students are being affected.”
Dawkins said she sees serving on the state Board of Education as an opportunity to make the case directly for the resources that New Haven students need.
“If she’s getting her story out there, other students can step up to the plate,” Thomas said.
Hillhouse Principal Glen Worthy said Dawkins is “one of our gems” who is “very involved in service projects.”
“We told her that whatever resources she needs for her project to be successful, we’d give to her,” he said. “I think she’s a special young lady and really cares about the community.”
He said he’s “interested to see what she comes up with,” especially in an environment where there are fewer school counselors on hand for mental health services.
Information from: New Haven Register, http://www.nhregister.com