'Something special in you'

The excitement in the Renaissance West STEAM Academy was palpable on Feb. 21. Thirty boys in fourth and fifth-grade were chosen for a special assembly by Principal Erin Barksdale and their teachers. They'd received special printed invitations the day before to a "Champ's Chat," but still weren't sure why they were there.

Barksdale gave them a first clue. "You've been chosen today because your teachers and I see something special in you," said Barksdale. "We see something in you that's amazing."

Power 98 talk show host Jessica Williams was on hand to emcee the event and introduced the Harding University High School football team, the current 4A state football champions. Renaissance students screamed and cheered when the high schoolers walked in.

Williams and Barksdale decided to partner together to create an event that could inspire the Renaissance students. "I think it's really important for our students to see kids who look like them who are champions," said Barksdale. "It helps them understand that they one day can be champions."

One of their main goals was to help with increase students' self-esteem. "If they walk away from here feeling good about themselves, then our job is done," said Williams.

Barksdale is a graduate of CMS. She attended Butler with Harding football coach Sam Grenier. He was eager to bring his students over for the assembly. "Being a champion is about so much more than winning football games," he said. "It's an everyday way of life. My players were so excited to come out here and share this with the younger kids. We've always wanted to have an impact on our community and now that we have a title to go with it, people want to listen."

After the cheers for the football team, Williams told the students the goals of the day. "We're here to talk to you today about overcoming challenges," said Williams. "We've all gone through a lot to become who we are and there's so much that we can learn from each other."

The program began with an ice-breaker activity. Williams read statements and if they applied to a student, they were encouraged to stand up and shout, "That's me!"

Williams said the activity was designed to help students understand they have more in common than not. "Say 'that's me' if you play football at Harding University High School," she said. Nearly 40 football players jumped up and shouted, shaking the bleachers.

"Say 'that's me if you want to go to college,'" she said. Both groups of students stood up and cheered.

Many of the Harding students have overcome significant challenges, including homelessness and struggles with academics. They shared their stories with the elementary students. One player, Tim, talked about being too small to be a lineman and how he had to keep fighting for his position but never gave up.

The Renaissance students were asked to share things that make them a champion. One student eagerly reached for the microphone. "I have confidence," he said. "I am a good reader. I am a kind person."

The football team roared their approval.