RACINE — Over 100 students packed into Mitchell Middle School’s library Friday morning. It was quiet, the faint hum of static on staff walkie-talkies near the back of the room could be heard.
That’s when Gary Cotton, the human resource director for the Racine/Kenosha Community Action Agency, slowly walked toward the front of the room. It was time for a pep talk.
“What are you going to do when you leave Mitchell?” he asked the students. “There’s a step for you guys next year and it’s high school. A new beginning…a new opportunity. You now have the opportunity to have a clean slate.”
Next, Maurice Horton took to the podium.
“Today is about hard work and it starts with you,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who is or who isn’t in your life right now — you can still be successful.”
Finally, Jamario Farr Sr., a youth advocate with Racine Unified School District, continued on in a more serious tone.
“Some people got to learn the hard way,” he said. “You can get all the warnings in the world… but it’s really an identity crisis. One of the biggest problems is that you can be so bent on validation from the wrong people.”
These three men spoke to students as part of Mitchell’s Community Day, which took place Friday. They are part of Racine’s Positive Men Making a Difference, a group that has been active in the community for five years.
Community Day at Mitchell has occurred at the school for the past 10 years, according to staff. Classes were canceled for the day as students partook in community-building events in their classrooms while listening to multiple presentations given by staff that focused on perseverance, anti-bullying and non-violence.
Horton, an alderman for the 7th District and a youth advocate with the Racine Unified School District, said the event was great for the school. Horton is also the president of Positive Men Making a Difference.
“Mitchell has had a not-so-good reputation, but today kids were very respectful. They listened and they were engaged,” Horton said. “I think we’ve made some turnarounds and some improvements.”
Mitchell made headlines last fall as reports of 15 staff members being injured by students were made public. Since then, however, changes have been made, which include a new principal, bullying-prevention training for students and increased security.
However, Friday was more so about encouraging students to make positive decisions. The miscues from months ago were not addressed by any of the speakers. Many of the speakers also used their own past mistakes to encourage students to make better choices.
Wendell White, a youth advocate at the school, shared stories from his past. White spent time dealing drugs in his youth — a path he now urges students not to take.
“Every day that you walk into this school, it’s on you to persevere and get through it,” he said. “You all prove society right when you do something that isn’t persevering. You tell society ‘thank you for labeling me.’”
White said he occasionally, with his church, gives motivational speeches in prisons. He says he is in Mitchell now to give back to the community that he came from, as he grew up in Racine.
“These children don’t understand how great they really are. It’s our job as teachers and community leaders just to pour back into our children and to let them know that they are great and we do believe in them,” White said.
Erica Wyatt, another youth advocate at Mitchell, also spoke about perseverance. She said hard work helped her to obtain a graduate degree, a degree she urged all students to try to obtain themselves.
“The thing that should be most important to you is your education. That’s what’s going to help you persevere,” she said.