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Empowering the Nation: Elmont Memorial’s Talented and Gifted Students Take UCONN by Storm

Although the final bell rang for the Elmont Memorial High School’s 2015-2016 school year, students in one English teacher’s classroom were eager to continue a yearlong project that kept them so engaged that they volunteered to continue during their summer vacations. On July 12, 16 of Maria Harley’s seventh- and eighth-grade students accompanied her to the University of Connecticut to share the impact of this project with hundreds of educators who attended the annual Confratute workshop.
“The Empowerment Project gives students an opportunity to voice their concerns about local and global issues and gives them a platform to explore solutions,” Ms. Harley said. “Through poetry, art, music, speeches, websites and other community outreach, students raised awareness about topics ranging from the wage gap to nuclear proliferation, from Black Lives Matter to educating girls around the world.”
While some students used social media to shed light on their topics, others made public service announcement videos and interactive displays, which reinforced unity and respect within the school.

“Students were truly empowered as they researched, analyzed and contributed to the ongoing dialogue about these social conditions,” Harley said. “They became enthusiastic writers and confident speakers who were passionate about the subject matter.”
The excitement was still evident on July 12 when these committed middle school students met their teacher in front of Elmont Memorial at 5:45 a.m. and bonded during the three-hour trip to the University of Connecticut. There they were greeted by their co-presenter Nicole Waicunas, and Sewanhaka Central High School’s Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Cheryl Champ.  
For the next hour and a half, Adetorera Adebiyi, Sky Arthur, Fisola Aruleba, Jahnia Cunningham, Nneka Emeagwali, Olisa Emeagwali, Imani Favard, Hannah Meikle, Laiba Mian, Melina Persaud, Lina Pinzon, Marvia Pressoir, Kai Reale, Karina Sandoval, Munahil Sultana and Aliyaah Toussaint mesmerized the audience of teachers and administrators, many saying that they will be implementing elements learned from this presentation into their schools next year. From the autobiographical poems to the soul-stirring song written and performed by Olisa, these students delivered an unforgettable presentation.
When asked to describe this year and this experience, Munahil Sultana said, “In Ms. Harley’s class, students find themselves in a unique situation — as they step into the doors of room 226, they are treated as adults and taught that their voices matter. While many of us have been told to speak up, we have grown accustomed to being ignored and many young people feel that we can’t make a difference — at least not in the way we want to. After many years of sitting in classrooms where students feel limited, you can imagine the surprise on my face when Ms. Harley allowed us to discuss a range of topics such as animal cruelty and discrimination. She encouraged us to bring up issues that are important to us and debate them in class. What's even more astounding was that she actually cared about what we had to say.”
Along with fellow eighth-grader Fisola Aruleba, Munahil met with Elmont Memorial’s Principal Kevin Dougherty in hopes of introducing the project schoolwide. They wanted to share what they had learned with students in grades 7-12 in their social studies classes. Mr. Dougherty supported the students and the Empowerment Project continued to flourish.

Hannah Meikle, who represented the Talented and Gifted program in Connecticut, was ecstatic about the event. “Confratute was an amazing experience. We were able to speak to educators who truly valued our time and thoughts. This experience helped me to see how much of an impact children can make and how much we matter to this world and the future. It was truly incredible and inspiring!”

Ending the presentation, the students performed a touching tribute to Ms. Harley for guiding them in this project. They all agreed that it was a moment that they will always remember.

Nneka Emeawali said, “The trip was eye-opening. I didn’t realize how much my words could influence our audience until I saw the looks on their faces. They were in awe and it only motivated me to do better and to push myself. I know that my fellow classmates can say the same. One audience member came up to me after the presentation and said how proud she is of us and how hopeful she is of the future because we will be leading it. We left Connecticut knowing that this is not the end of a project but in fact a new beginning. I can’t wait to see what we will accomplish going forward!”