A leader in building self-esteem

An elementary teacher starts a club for young girls to instill confidence


Maleeta Kitchen, a second-grade teacher at Running Brook Elementary School, watched closely as members of the girls club she supervises started giggling during a recent practice for a rendition of The Wiz.

"You cannot hear if you are talking," the 25-year-old told the five pupils on stage. "You cannot be silly, this is serious."

The girls immediately stopped joking around, and they perfected the scene on the next try.

For the past four months, Kitchen has worked with members of the group she started - Pretty Girl Inc. - in preparation for the school's parent night.

The group, made up of nine fourth- and fifth-graders, is in its second year and emphasizes instilling confidence and life skills in young African-American girls.

The club, which is not restricted to students from any one ethic background, meets most of the school year, once a week, for an hour after school.

The performance of The Wiz, which was scheduled to take place in the school cafeteria last night, is one of a series of activities for the girls.

Kitchen has brought in professional working women to speak to the girls about everything from goal-setting to skin care.

"Not going to college is not even an option," Kitchen said. "Even singers need to know how to manage money."

Kitchen also teaches etiquette lessons that culminate with an end-of-the-year tea.

"We talk about what it means to be a young lady; coming to school looking appropriate, making sure your hair is done," said Kitchen, who hopes to expand the idea to other schools in the future. "We're striving for the best."

Kitchen came up with the idea for the group shortly after arriving at Running Brook three years ago. She said she was disturbed by the way some of the African-American girls in the school behaved.

"They were dressing and acting like they were 10 going on 21," Kitchen recalled. "I didn't see a lot of positive role models. Some girls wanted to dance in [music] videos. I knew there was so much more to life than that."

The girls embraced the group immediately.

"Miss Kitchen is very inspiring," said Paris Porter, a 9-year-old fourth-grader. "She really stands up as a black woman role model."

Daija Lyles, 9, also a fourth-grader, said Kitchen has helped her self-esteem.

"Pretty Girls helps you be confident about yourself no matter what," she said.

Jeamima Jimmy, 11, a fifth-grader, said that even when a classmate criticizes her, Kitchen and the group are there to raise her spirits.


"The name of the club [is enough] to make you feel good about yourself," Jeamima said. "Miss Kitchen lets you know that you are more than what they say you are."

Tenasia Dixon, 10, a fifth-grader, said the group allows her to develop her inner and outer beauty.

"I can share my ideas," Tenasia said. "It is a way to show my silly side and my creative side. I can be with my friends."

Parents love the group.

Diana Lyles, Daija's mother, said that Kitchen teaches the girls self-awareness and pride.

"It makes them feel appreciated," Lyles said.

Noticing change

Since Daija has participated in the group, her mother said, she has noticed a substantial change in discipline-related behavior. She credited the group with contributing to that.

"What I instill in her is backed by seeing another African-American in the classroom," said Lyles.

Trinnetta Porter, Paris' mother, said that before her daughter joined the group, Paris was extremely shy.

"She has changed," Porter said. "She's happy. She wants to come to [Pretty Girls]."

Troy Todd, the assistant principal at Running Brook, said that Kitchen is effective with the girls because she plays the role of a "big sister."

"She can answer questions that some are not comfortable asking," Todd said.

Kitchen, who started teaching immediately after graduating from the University of Delaware in 2003, is able to use her relative youth to advantage.

For example, to get the girls enthusiastic about their modern rendition of The Wiz, she included modern details that helped the girls better relate to the play.

So Dorothy travels with her sister, Danielle, instead of with Toto, her dog. Instead of singing, the group steps - a series of simultaneous dance moves popular among African-American fraternities and sororities.

The girls also perform the Cha Cha Slide, a popular Chicago-based dance.

Marie Allen, grandmother of Pretty Girl member Jerrica Allen, said Kitchen reinforces etiquette lessons that are given at home.

"If they do it as a group, this is the norm," Allen said. "We need to train our children how to behave and act in public."


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