When Jasmine Buckner first arrived at Burnsville High School from New York City, she felt alone.
Not only is she not from Minnesota, but she is also black. The school has an image of seeming diverse and inclusive, she said, but she didn’t feel included.
“I didn’t feel welcome at all,” said Buckner, a senior at the high school and a vice president of the school’s brand-new Black Student Union. “Even the students are not inclusive.”
Several of her peers nodded in agreement with her in a group interview recently with the executive board of the Black Student Union, a student group formed at BHS this past fall. The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District hired its first African American cultural liaison this school year, Morgan Stampley.
Stampley helped form the BSU, which some students say is changing the culture at the high school to feel more inclusive. District officials say they are working to help students feel connected and help them feel like they belong. Ultimately the goal is to improve academic performance.
“The kids have so much passion. They’re passionate about wanting their voices heard,” said BHS Principal Dave Helke. “For me it’s great to see the kids being at a point where they can feel engaged.”
Over the summer, Eyerusalem Abebaw, a senior at the high school, had an idea to start a BSU at the high school. And when she brought the idea to Stampley, others had come to her with the same proposal.
“I’m pretty sure other people had the same idea,” Abebaw said.
With racial and cultural tensions rising across the country, Abdullahi said students now more than ever need help strengthening the school community. Burnsville High School, which maintains a population of about 2,500 kids, is about 50 percent students of color.
In October, about 30 students said they would come to the first BSU meeting. More than 70 showed up. On average, more than 60 students show up to each meeting, which takes place every other Tuesday, said Stacie Stanley, director of curriculum, instruction and student support.
“It was just so amazing because everyone was speaking,” Abdullahi said.
Earlier this month, about 60 Burnsville High School students got together for a workshop to address conflict that comes from cultural differences between students and staff, according to a school district news release about the workshop.
They talked about having more conversations about race, addressing racial incidents differently at the administrative level, celebrating diversity and incorporating anti-racism education, among other ideas, according to the district.
On March 5, students will meet again to discuss those ideas more deeply and come up with a plan to work toward some of the issues.
“I think the goal is to create the environment where these conversations can happen,” Helke said.
Ultimately, Helke and Stanley said, the efforts the district has made lately — which include hiring Stampley, starting the student union and hosting the workshop on addressing cultural tensions, among other efforts — could help improve academic performance.
The idea is if students feel like they belong in their school and they have role models that look like them, they are much more likely to get higher grades, engage in extracurricular activities and be prepared for life after high school, whether that is a career or college, Stanley and Helke said.
With the student union, district officials say they want to see students rise to leadership roles, which will help as they apply to colleges.
“Colleges want to see that… well-rounded student,” Stanley said.
Students participating in the Black Student Union are focusing on volunteering, planning activities and getting involved in the community. They also put up a display at the high school in honor of Black History Month in February.
“Their goal is to get out into the community,” Stanley said.
Historically, Stanley said cultural liaisons have existed primarily to bridge linguistic gaps between students and families. Liaisons have worked with families, translated documents and connected with parents in their native language. This includes Spanish-speaking families and Somali parents.
But people like Stampley as well as Dominic Good Buffalo, the Native American cultural liaison, are helping students feel they have a voice, a role model and support as a minority as they move through their academic career.
“Students are feeling more included,” Stanley said.