The clapping and stomping captivated his schoolmates at Tillman Elementary, but Friday was not the first time Darius Jones had seen this step team perform.
The group was from Riverview Gardens High School, in the same district where the fourth-grader previously was a student. He came to Kirkwood this school year because of the transfer law. A lot at Tillman has been new to Darius, but those steppers were familiar.
“I saw them at my old school,” Darius said. “That was cool.”
Tillman was celebrating Black History Month at Friday’s assembly. And teachers wanted to make Tillman feel a little bit more like home for Darius and the school’s two dozen other transfer students.
“It was just a really good way to bring a little bit of Riverview to Tillman,” said Adrienne Fox-Ray, a first-grade teacher.
Fox-Ray used to teach in Riverview Gardens before she was hired in Kirkwood, so she knew about the step team called Gentlemen of Vision, and the group’s effort to keep young men in school.
Kirkwood’s connection with Riverview Gardens has been growing this year in light of the transfer students, 175 who reside in Riverview Gardens and bus in to Kirkwood.
Teachers thought a visit from the step team would be good for everyone at Tillman.
The group’s focus on character, responsibility and teamwork is a lesson for all students, and the invitation for them to perform in Kirkwood carried with it a sense of honor and pride, said Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon, who stood with his Kirkwood counterpart, Tom Williams, during Friday’s assembly.
Riverview Gardens and Normandy, the other unaccredited district in the region, have been struggling with the exodus of more than 2,000 students after a state Supreme Court decision last summer. The court upheld a law that says unaccredited schools must pay tuition and transportation for students in failing districts to attend better schools. Those bills have brought Normandy to the brink of bankruptcy, and if the transfers continue as the law stands, Riverview Gardens may not be far behind.
Senior Tyale McNary said his step team shows a different side of Riverview Gardens.
“There is positive stuff going on in our school, too,” McNary said.
The performance by the Gentlemen of Vision, who have won seven national championships, topped off the assembly. The event also showcased projects by Tillman students researching black inventors.
Jessica Hawkins, a third-grade teacher who helped organize the assembly, said teachers at the school try to focus on the backgrounds of all of their students when planning lessons and activities.
“It’s about making sure all of our families feel valued, and bringing an awareness to the students,” Hawkins said.
Stepping involves dance routines of choreographed claps and aggressive stomps to make rhythmic sounds, along with chanting and lyrics. It has long been a southern tradition of African-American college fraternities and sororities, but the popularity has spread in recent years to high schools in the Midwest.
“You guys are awesome,” a boy said to McNary as the Tillman students filed out of the assembly. Another said she was “stunned” by the performance.
But it was Tillman’s newly formed step team — the Pepper Steppers — that was particularly impressed with the Gentlemen of Vision. After the performance, they got to ask the Riverview group questions and ended up showing off their moves, too.
“I think that they were an inspiration to our school,” said Carli Brooks, a fifth-grader at Tillman who is on the step team.
The Pepper Steppers have lost a few team members who didn’t want to miss recess for practice. They asked the Gentlemen of Vision about how much time they put into the group.
Many steppers juggle other extra-curriculars like sports and community service, and sometimes two or three hours of practices aren’t easy to fit in, one member told the Tillman children. It takes responsibility and teamwork, another added.
“You have to pick and choose, but most of us would pick step,” he said.
Tillman Principal Lisa Greenstein said there is value for both Kirkwood and Riverview Gardens in these types of collaborations.
“There are great teachers and students and parents in all districts, and we can all learn from each other,” she said.
For Darius, it wasn’t easy to start a new school. His friends kept asking him to visit his old school, and he had to get used to a new building, teachers and classmates. Seeing the step team again made a difference.
“I’m feeling a little better,” he said. “I like it.”