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Alum goes extra mile at Wingate Elementary

Niklas Martin

A dozen girls at Wingate Elementary jostle arm-in-arm in a huddle, belting out an affirming chant: “I am powerful. I am a leader. I am my sister’s keeper. Together we can do anything.”

Right there with them is fifth-grade teacher Joya Wortham. Two hours past the end of the school day, Wortham, a 2012 Wingate University graduate, is still pouring her energy into students, prodding them in a positive direction and pushing them toward a better self-image.

“I love these kids,” she says of the third- through fifth-graders who are part of My Sister’s Keeper and My Brother’s Keeper, twice-weekly after-school programs she created. “I have kids all over the school who will come up and hug me. When I see them misbehave, I let them know, ‘What you are doing is crazy. You are better than that. I see so much more for you and from you.’”

The combination of tough love and targeted lessons on everything from respect and confidence to health and hygiene has benefited some 200 children, chosen for the extra attention in part because of their vulnerability.

“Many of these girls have been through abuse or have seen their mothers go through abusive relationships,” Wortham says of students on her My Sister’s Keeper roster. “Most of them are without fathers. And they all have this ‘thing,’ whether it’s anger or isolation, that holds them back from showing off their wonderful personality and potential of being an amazing leader and role model.”

It was Wortham’s hope of loosing some of those bonds that prompted her to start the program five years ago. Even as a rookie teacher fresh out of college, Wortham could tell that certain students could use some extra attention, and she was prepared and confident enough to act.

“My first year, I had a really rough class,” Wortham says. “There was the sweetest girl in the class with the nastiest attitude. I saw myself in that girl.” As she read the child’s records, full of negative comments, she said she knew she had to do something to help her and others like her find a better path forward.

With the support of the school’s principal, she began offering the after-school program. She had 32 girls in the first group.

“I had some wonderful women to help me run it, and the whole room was filled with girls,” Wortham says. Although the number of volunteers and students has fluctuated as the program has evolved (the first year, the school offered transportation, but that funding is no longer available), she typically has about 20 girls enrolled.

Improving self-esteem

An African American female teacher holds a poster up in front of a group of 12 girls.

Joya Wortham holds up a poster while the girls who drew it explain how it illustrates attributes of My Sister’s Keeper, an after-school program she created to help them with self-esteem and other challenges.

Wortham starts the fall session in September with activities to help the girls get to know one another and to understand her expectations. Then they move to goal-setting and focus on topics, earning gems for specific accomplishments and learning that they are responsible for their own behavior and for helping those around them to succeed.

Wortham took a methodical approach to developing the program. “I just thought about what issues they face – self-esteem, respect, leadership – then I started thinking through how the topics should go in order,” she says. She gets ideas from character-building websites and adapts them to her group.

She says it doesn’t take long for most students to begin to open up and share their struggles. Talks about self-esteem and what affects it have led to discussions about abuse, divorce, suicide and more.

“For things like divorce, we talk about how it’s not your fault, and how we can’t let those things that we cannot control affect our behavior,” Wortham says. The sessions are a mix of discussion and action. In a recent class, girls made posters about what it means to be a part of My Sister’s Keeper. They then put their teamwork skills to the test in a game that had them walking around the room atop a line of chairs that they had to move by passing them one at a time down the line without stepping foot on the floor.

A group of 12 female elementary age students stand on chairs in a line in a classroom and pass a chair down the line.

My Sister’s Keeper members stand on chairs and pass a chair down the line so they can step forward without touching their feet to the floor as they move the entire group around the room toward a finish line. The team-building activity was part of a recent after-school session.

“We are sisters for life,” Wortham tells them. “My sister got on my nerves when we were growing up. She was the baby and got everything that she wanted. But now that we are older, she is the first person I call when something goes wrong. We are going to get on each other’s nerves, but we are still sisters. We are in it together.”

Lesa Williams, an interventionist at Wingate Elementary, has high praise for Wortham.

“She is passionate about helping all students succeed,” Williams says. “She allows students to debate each other and teaches them to have meaningful conversations about relevant topics. She pushes students outside their comfort zones to become leaders, to do their best in all situations and to have a positive self-image.”

Expanding the program

Wortham’s success with the girls’ program did not go unnoticed by her male students, who soon began demanding a My Brother’s Keeper.

At first doubtful that she could be as effective with boys, Wortham was pleased to find out otherwise. She set goals appropriate for young men and traded the gems for collectible action figures.

“I was very surprised,” Wortham says. “They respect me and want to share with me.” Twenty-five boys are in the program, which started two years ago. Both clubs meet on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Behavior coach Braxton Fonville carries out Wortham’s lessons with the boys in one room while she works with the girls in another, popping back and forth to check their progress. Last summer, she brought both groups to Wingate University for an overnight retreat, something she hopes to do again.

“When I mention the summer retreat, their faces light up,” Wortham says. She uses whatever perks she can as motivators for good behavior, as do the students’ classroom teachers, who give her feedback on how they perform during the school day. She has a three-strike policy and has had to remove some students from the Keepers programs, but she says many earn their way back in.

Some former students have contacted Wortham to ask if she can start Keepers at their middle school. Wortham would like to see the program spread, which she says would require more volunteers and, ideally, funds for transportation.

Michelle Caddigan, Wingate University’s associate director of athletics, coached Wortham in softball and isn’t surprised by her success. “Joya was always compassionate toward others,” she says. “She was a great teammate, as she always lifted those around her.”

She describes Wortham as a quiet and reserved freshman who became more outspoken each year. “As a senior, she always reminded her teammates of what a blessing it was to attend college and be a student-athlete,” Caddigan says. “I believe that resonated with her team and enhanced everyone’s experience.”

Wortham says her time at Wingate prepared her for the classroom. “It gave me a lot of different strategies to try,” she says, not to mention the confidence to start a new program during her first year teaching.

Wortham earned a $508 Bright Ideas Grant from Union Power Cooperative for My Sister’s Keeper late last year. This spring, she is planning a five-year anniversary celebration, during which she hopes to showcase the program to the community and also attract female vendors as additional role models for her girls. The event is tentatively planned for March 24 at Wingate Community Park.