By Margaret Hunt
With an aim to help build the future base of tomorrow’s Black leaders, Wellington High School has created an innovative course known as BLAST, which stands for the Black Leadership & Achievement Student Team.
When AICE math teacher Nancy Toussaint and student McKenzie Henry, then a senior, realized that Black students were under-represented in Wellington High School’s leadership programs, they both wanted to make the school more inclusive. They needed a team, but there was a problem — they had no clue that one another existed.
However, when Mike Kozlowski, a school administrator with a similar vision, approached Toussaint about meeting Henry, it led to the creation of a class for underserved Black students.
In January 2020, at the next faculty meeting, WHS Principal Cara Hayden gave her support to adding a leadership class for Black students at the school. She noted that the previous schools that she worked in all had courses designed for Black students, but when she became principal at Wellington High School, there were none. She wanted the school to be a place where minority students could thrive as well.
A follow-up faculty meeting occurred via Zoom near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Toussaint invited Henry to attend. She wanted a student to be involved in the discussion about creating a Black leadership class.
During the meeting, the late Assistant Principal Henry Paulk created the name for the proposed class after pondering it some time. He came up with the acronym BLAST and suggested that Toussaint have an interview process for prospective students.
Toussaint eventually carried out the interviews in August 2020, when BLAST officially became a class at WHS. She worked with faculty members Audra Davis, Oscar Robinson, Suzanne Nichols and Danielle Fairclough to create an application form that the students would fill out before being approved to participate in the program.
From there, Toussaint and Henry met on Google Meet to discuss creating a commercial for the class. Henry filmed a promotional video that would later be played for the BLAST students. She used word-of-mouth to get her fellow classmates interested in joining the program, garnering the first eight students. Fairclough, a guidance counselor, located more Black students that she would e-mail the application to. The class started out with 16 founding students, but it will expand to approximately 24 students during the 2021-22 school year.
BLAST is currently offered as an honors elective at Wellington High School, available for students in grades 11 and 12. Its mission is to, “Empower Black students to create a positive mindset, achieve academic success and develop leadership skills.”
Toussaint’s vision for the class was for students to serve in a similar capacity as the Student Government Association. One of her primary goals was for the class to be student-led. Before he passed away in October 2020, Paulk’s goal was for BLAST to increase the students’ communication skills and to improve their group dynamics. It is safe to say that in its first year, the class accomplished that.
“BLAST has created a safe place for me and my friends to talk about anything,” WHS graduate Melik Frederick said. “We motivated each other every day and learned a lot from each other. Being the first year of this class, we got a lot done. Special thanks to Ms. Toussaint.”
During the 2020-21 school year, following through with her student leadership goal, Toussaint allowed the students to give their input on what they would like to be taught. BLAST students learned different leadership styles, goal setting, active listening skills, financial literacy and more. Henry was chosen to serve as president, and the seniors delegated class-officer positions among themselves. They formed groups named after tribes from different African regions and made projects about topics such as African American historical figures.
The most notable part of the class was “Free Talk Friday,” where students had an environment to discuss their opinions on current events and talk about their lives. It was from this time set aside every week that the students in the class realized that the things they had to say mattered.
“BLAST was an amazing experience and by far the best class I took at Wellington High School,” recent graduate Hermione Williams said. “It was a class where I could comfortably express how I felt about national events and learn more about my history. With the help of Ms. Toussaint, we learned that despite the stereotypes set upon us Black people by society, we all have the potential to create a path for excellence. We were more than just peers and a teacher — we were family.”
With the help of the Village of Wellington, the BLAST students were able to use their newly found voices to make an impact on their community through a series of videos that they made during Black History Month to celebrate their heritage and to speak up about topics that they were passionate about. These videos included, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Racism,” “We Still Have Dreams” and “Black Inventors.” They were played during school and were shared throughout Wellington.
Because of their videos, six BLAST students were able to participate in the Village of Wellington’s SWAG program, which stands for Students Working to Achieve Greatness. Through this program, the students received summer internships at varying locations, along with tools to become successful in the workforce, such as interviewing pointers, financial literacy, attire and more. They met with and got advice from accomplished Black people in the community and got the opportunity to network with community leaders.
BLAST’s meetings with community organizations and school leadership classes such as the Urban League, SWAG, the Student Government Association and Latinos In Action have played a crucial role in spreading the word about the new program. So much so, that School Board Member Marcia Andrews, and Brian Knowles, manager of the Office of African, African American, Latino, Holocaust and Gender Studies for the school district, met with BLAST to discuss the expansion of the class to other schools across the county. Andrews was receptive to the proposal, and the likelihood of BLAST’s expansion is favorable.
Along with expanding the class, BLAST has internal goals for Wellington High School. The group hopes to implement programs that will help the students, such as Big Brother/Big Sister-style mentoring, conflict mediation, and dealing with student complaints and concerns. BLAST members have talked with the school’s administration about the integration of these programs and have concluded that they will take time and training to fully implement.
However, the program has shown that there are many faculty members in support of minority students in the school. In the future, BLAST aims to collaborate with other classes, clubs and student groups to make sure that every student is represented within the school’s leadership.