NEWPORT, Ky. — Newport Intermediate School's students are about as diverse as a group of Northern Kentucky kids can be.
Last school year, roughly 58 percent of the students were white. Nearly 15 percent were black, and another 17 percent identified themselves as mixed race. About 10 percent were Hispanic, and some of those students spoke English as a second language.
Roughly 90 percent of the students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free lunch. Some of them are homeless. Other kids live in $400,000 houses in the Mansion Hill neighborhood.
But as different as the students are, every one of them has the potential to be a leader. And that's what the Newport Intermediate's principal, teachers, counselor and staff stressed during the school's recent Lunch with Leaders event.
Each year, Newport Intermediate hosts Lunch with Leaders to bring the city's leaders into the school to interact with some of the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders there. The grownups in attendance included judges, businessmen and school board members. Most of the roughly 40 students who took part in the event were from the school's student ambassadors program that's run by Sandra Pierce, the school's guidance counselor.
Each homeroom teacher nominates two students to be ambassadors, and they meet with Pierce once a month to talk about how to be positive leaders in their school and community.
"We’re hoping that many of these kids from Newport Schools are going to graduate from Newport High School and ultimately become leaders in our community," Pierce told me.
WCPO photojournalist Emily Maxwell and I went to the event Feb. 24 to spend time inside a school that serves so many families grappling with poverty.
We sat at a table with four Newport students. They were Khalil Buckbarder, a 9-year-old fourth-grader; Maria Perez, a 10-year-old fifth-grader; Nathalia Grande, an 11-year-old fifth-grader; and Mia Hutchins, a 10-year-old fourth-grader.
At first blush, these four didn't appear to have a lot in common.
Khalil and Maria both said their favorite subject was math. Nathalia likes science because of the fun experiments. And Mia's favorite subject is reading. She has a big stack of books in her room at home, she said.
But when I asked each of them, "What's the best thing about Newport Intermediate?" they all gave the same answer: the teachers.
"They're so nice and caring for their students," Maria said. "When you have a problem, they will talk to you outside and find out what's going on and try to make you feel better."
Even soft-spoken Khalil agreed. "If you're sad," he told me, "they'll cheer you up."
Newport Intermediate Principal Brian Courtney explained to me later that the student-teacher bond is no accident.
"Building relationships is huge — especially with students in poverty," Courtney said. "You're not going to teach them unless they trust you."
Teachers at Newport Intermediate make a home visit to each of their students before the start of the school year, he said. The idea is to introduce themselves to students and families and to make sure they know the school is there to help them.
But those meetings before the start of the school year can't reach everyone because so many students move in and out of the school each year.
Last year, the school had roughly 40 students leaving and 40 new students enrolling every month, Courtney said.
That means teachers have to be able to build that trust quickly with kids who have been uprooted.
To help with that, each staff member at Newport Intermediate must have at least three positive interactions per week, Courtney said. Those can be phone calls praising a student or a letter sent home, and most teachers do way more than the minimum, he said.
The results showed.
During our short time at the school, I saw Nathalia seek reassurance from a teacher who was walking by the table where we were gathered. Nathalia was supposed to present to a group of visitors after the lunch part of the event was over, and she didn't realize she would be standing in front of a classroom with so many adults watching her.
"You'll do fine," the teacher assured Nathalia, giving her shoulder a squeeze as she walked by.
"They're nice, and if we need help, we can always go to them," she said of the school's teachers. "And they'll help us."
'Don't Worry — I'll Help'
After the lunch, the students and adult visitors broke into two groups.
Half the students and adults went to the gym to play basketball, jump around and get to know each other better.
For a while, Mia twirled a hula-hoop around her waist alongside Jerome Bowles, president of the Northern Kentucky Chapter of the NAACP.
Upstairs in room 208, Nathalia and a boy whose parents were born in Guatemala stood at the head of the class to make a presentation in front of a world map.
Then pairs of students coached adults gathered around desks, walking them step-by-step on how to make a flag using fractions.
A boy named Jacob told two men: "You're going to make a flag with fractions. But don't worry — I'll help."
The exercise continued with adults drawing vertical and horizontal lines and coloring until they could match the flags they had made with the correct image in a handout. The students offered guidance and praise and talked comfortably with their visitors.
It was a chance for them to get to know the people who lead their community — and to show off their own leadership skills, too.
"A lot of our kids feel hopeless, like they're not smart enough or they're not good enough," Pierce told me after the event. "We really reiterate that you don't have to be a straight A student in order to be a leader at your school."
And you don't have to live in a fancy house in Mansion Hill, either.
During the Lunch with Leaders event, we couldn't tell the difference between the kids experiencing homelessness and the kids who would end their day in $400,000 homes.
And that's a credit to Newport Intermediate School — where every child matters and where the teachers and staff encourage all their students to be leaders.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO.