Through a program known as SPARK, Student Program for Arts, Recreation and Knowledge, and with the support of Principal Jessica Major and teachers, students are able to make changes they want to see at Port Allen Middle School.
“We came up with this two summers ago,” Major said. “Every summer, we invite a different group to come up with ideas.”
“If I just keep doing what I want to do and what the teachers want to do, then we’re going to lose the engagement and the buy-in from the kids,” she said later. “In middle school, you want the kids to want to be here because then they want to learn.”
The first change, Lunch with the Principal, was instituted last year by students who are now in high school.
“There was a group of four kids who wanted to have lunch with the principal if their grade point average was above a certain level (2.5 originally),” Major said. “They wanted the ability to have lunch wherever they wanted.”
At a 2.5 grade point average threshold, she said about 90 students who made the grade, so it was increased to 3.0. Lunches last year included pizza, nachos and Raising Cane’s.
“…If it hadn’t been their idea, we wouldn’t have been able to put all of that into play,” Major said, then talked about the students who came up with fresh ideas this summer. “This year, they will implement those ideas.”
Chase Neyland-Square had the idea to create PAMS Pantry, “where we put donated clothes and we give them to students and grown-ups who are in need.”
“I wanted everybody to feel equal so I came up with the idea to give clothes and different things to anybody who needs them,” he said.
Neyland-Square said the pantry recently helped Port Allen residents who had been the victims of a house fire, “who came in and got all the clothes they needed.”
Donations for PAMS Pantry come from “all over the community,” he said, then sorted and organized by volunteers.
Jasha Hurst suggested an extra break, a chance to go outside and socialize.
Major said students used to sit in the gym for a six-minute break after lunch, but she and her staff brainstormed to come up with a way to make Hurst’s suggestion a reality.
“No when we get off the bus, we go in the cafeteria, have our breakfast and then go outside,” Hurst said, adding students have a recess after lunch.
“So now we do a lunch recess which we never did before,” Major said. Now, students spend a minimum of 15 minutes in the lunchroom and then go outside for 15 minutes after lunch.
Makayla LeJeune said that while the school has taken its students on a field trip in the past, she “wanted a more exciting destination.”
“I wanted to have a trip at the end of the year that wasn’t to Baton Rouge,” she said. “Every year we just go to Baton Rouge and I’m tired of Baton Rouge.”
LeJeune suggested bake sales to fund the trip, which Major called educational.
“We’re not going to go there and just have fun, we’re going to actually learn something,” she said. “…We’re going to allow them to plan how we’re going to get there, what we’re going to do when we get there.”
One destination commonly suggested is Washington, which will likely take more than bake sales to make a reality. Any trip—and its funding—will be implemented and fulfilled by the students, Major said. “They have to carry out their own ideas.”
Jacie Patton said she wanted to improve on an activity the school has had in the past, Fun Fridays, calling them “Super Fun Fridays.”
“I want us to be able to go outside, go in the gym, socialize and fun stuff like that,” she said.
Major said, “the students have to be a part of the process, we don’t just do it for them,” and said she and the teachers came up with several ideas for Super Fun Friday for the students to implement.
Once a month, Port Allen Middle will have its Friday “super” event, which will each include one of the following—a dodgeball tournament, a tug of war contest, relay races, a lip sync contest and teachers versus students volleyball and basketball games.
All of the Super Fun Friday’s will be organized by the school’s Green Jacket Leadership Team, to which all of the students involved in these changes belong.
Omari Jackson’s fits along those lines.
“I want to create a student government association,” she said. “It will benefit the school because if the students have a say in the school they will feel like they are heard.”
“That’s our biggest thing, allowing kids to be part of the process, not only giving us their ideas and input but being part of the planning process, helping us to execute that process that we’ve come up with,” Major said.
“Another thing that we’ve done over the last couple of years is we do a lot of student surveys,” Major said, and a recurring theme was more color in the school building.
“The kids really like having color in the classrooms and on the walls, so we have done a lot to bring color to the building,” she continued.
There are pennants hung from the ceilings to add color and with help from former students now in high school, the out-of-use lockers from buildings in the rear of the building were removed to brighten up the campus and replaced with brightly colored walls.
“There are different blocks of color in the hallway to make it feel less like a regular school hallway,” Major said.