Moving kids a step closer to success

Demanding art form inspires college goals in black students

March 12, 2007|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

The sound of 30 feet stomping in unison reverberates through the middle school cafeteria to the accompaniment of thunderous clapping.

Chelsea Everett and Nichole Parrish, members of Ellicott City's Howard High School step team who volunteer at an after-school program at Harper's Choice Middle School in Columbia, stand in front of their charges - a group of six students - with a sense of accomplishment.

"That's my team!" says Everett, 17, Howard's step team captain, after the youngsters complete a series of intricate maneuvers.

It might have appeared that a bunch of kids were simply having fun getting into the groove. But stepping - a soulful combination of dance, cheerleading and military marching - is spreading from its origins with black fraternities and sororities on college campuses to elementary, middle and high schools, where it is being used to encourage youngsters to excel academically, to appreciate their history and to whet their appetites for college.

Enthusiasts say stepping strengthens camaraderie and enforces focus and discipline, particularly among black students, and that teachers can use the activity as an opportunity to bond with their students.

A high-grossing movie about stepping, Stomp the Yard, opened in January and is part of what's attracting a younger generation to stepping.

Stepping "takes the burden and the stress off of the academics," said Maletta Kitchen, a second-grade teacher at Running Brook Elementary School in Columbia. Kitchen teaches stepping to members of Pretty Girl Inc., a group of nine Running Brook fourth- and fifth-graders that teaches life skills and emphasizes confidence to African-American girls. "But the underlying thing is that you have to go to college to continue it."

Lindsay Terrell, 14, a freshman member of Howard High's team, says that college is the only way to prolong her stepping experience.

"Since I know that I want to continue with stepping, I have to be in a fraternity or a sorority," Terrell said. "To be part of a fraternity or a sorority, you have to be in college."

Amaka Fasuyi, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Harper's Choice who says the rush of stepping is "awesome," said that watching older steppers has influenced her and her classmates to plan on attending college.

Although experts say it is too early to link an increase in college enrollment to stepping, Lora Fitzgerald, president and founder of the National Youth Step Conference Inc., said it could draw more students to historically black colleges and universities.

Middle and high school step teams are not affiliated with historically black fraternities and sororities, she said, but many follow the same principles: a sense of pride, community service and academic excellence.

"In order to promote stepping in its proper form, you have to incorporate education," said Fitzgerald, a member of Zeta Phi Beta sorority, one of nine historically black Greek organizations that have popularized stepping. "You have to be enrolled in someone's four-year college. Two-year colleges don't work. Education is our key to get to the American dream. Education is the cornerstone of our nine organizations."

Some black fraternities and sororities object to the weight that is placed on stepping, according to Elizabeth C. Fine, author of the book Soulstepping: African American Step Shows.

"They say people are too interested in stepping and not interested enough in community service projects," she said. "The counter-argument is that stepping is a great way to raise money for community service and scholarships.

"There are people who are motivated to join fraternities and sororities because they want to step," Fine said. "If that leads them to go to college - to join these groups - that is a plus."

In Maryland, high school step teams are concentrated in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, though there are also step teams in Baltimore, Fitzgerald said.

Academic motivator

Educators like to use stepping as a motivator for academic success, and many treat the activity like a sport, Fine said.

"Stepping will help students develop discipline; it will help them maintain grades," said Fine, who is a professor and chairwoman of the department of interdisciplinary studies at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. "The step teachers are tough. The students develop a love of stepping, and they develop discipline just as an athlete [would]."

Rita Chappelle, a physics and chemistry teacher at Baltimore's Samuel L. Banks High School, started her school's first step team last fall and enforces a stricter academic standard than Baltimore City's passing grade of 60 percent. To participate on the 22-member team, her students cannot have grades lower than 70.

"Even though we are not considered a part of the athletic department, if they are failing class they are sidelined," Chappelle said. "They have to maintain attendance. They have to maintain attitude. If they are disrespectful, they are sidelined. They have to represent the team."

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