Lion’s Pride (LP): Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Zion McKinnie (ZM): I started out at Gary Comer College Prep Middle School and was there until late 7th grade. After that, I moved to Baker College Prep where I was one of the founding littles for the Lion’s Pride Program. I came to work at The Noble Academy shortly after my graduation and I currently serve as a cultural specialist.
[At The Noble Academy, the culture specialist works to collect and analyze the culture “metrics” of the school that include components of academics, social-emotional well-being, and character development. The overall goal of the position is to create an environment where students feel safe, valued, and supported.]
LP: How would you say Lion’s Pride has impacted you as a person?
ZM: Lion’s Pride really helped me develop an open mind. I had already been a part of Noble pre-high school, so when Lion’s Pride was offered to me as a program to help me transition into Baker, I didn’t really feel like I needed it. But the program really helped with the transition in high school. A lot of people overall were helped throughout the program in different ways. You learn how to be more independent through your involvement with the program.
LP: What does your current role entail and what are your favorite parts about your position?
ZM: Some tasks that I am in charge of include organizing parent-teacher conferences, student remedial programs, improving culture and teamwork practices, and in doing so I work directly with Lion’s Pride. The role allows me to develop pre-established relationships, and through developing an open culture and relationships with scholars, I am able to know what they need and where they are in terms of strengths and the areas where they might need more help.
I always tell the students that I was a founding little, now I’m a big. This position gives me the ability to give back.
It was because people invested time in me, and I want to give back and to be the confidant that I had been given. It’s very important that these students know that there is someone who cares about them. They need to feel cared about, and know that they’re more than a number or statistic.
LP: Through Lion’s Pride, we have a cyclical experience of students both receiving mentors and then becoming potential future mentors themselves. Why do you think it’s important for students to have mentors at this level?
ZM: Having a mentor helps over the areas that your parents cannot necessarily support and essentially fills in the gaps. A mentor can be involved in areas that your parents can’t necessarily support and can find the weaknesses that they cannot necessarily find. As a mentor, by finding these weaknesses, you can understand how to help students come up with solutions for themselves. We teach our mentors that it’s their role to ask students, what can we do better? How can we help? And by doing so, we learn for ourselves how to better help the students we are mentoring.
LP: Who are your mentors right now?
ZM: There are a couple. My middle school algebra teacher. My drama teacher at Baker. The Community Outreach Manager at Gary Comer Youth Center. Former teachers allow for an interesting perspective because now I can look at how things are when I’m on this side of the fence. Now I can go to them as friends and ask them questions from both perspectives.
When I first started this role I was very overwhelmed and wasn’t sure about all the decisions that I had made. But when I talked to my mentors she reminded me that being in the education system was something that she knew I wanted to do, and that there is a gray area of being an educator. Legally you can only do so much to help a student and having that responsibility to find that balance is overwhelming. My mentors however remind me that these are the feelings that keep you going as an educator and help keep you going in the right direction. They remind me that this is an area where I can make the most impact.
LP: How do you see yourself changing with the role that you’re currently in?
ZM: I currently see myself building up in the role, taking on more responsibility. In the future I would really like to go into the education space, and teach psychology at the high school level. Ideally I’d like to teach at either the 11-12, middle school, or 1-2 grade range. The most likely opportunity to teach would be at the high school level where the students' opportunities are already developed and molded. But middle school students can be pushed into certain directions, and made aware of how their thought processes work.
LP: Let’s say you could go back and meet Zion from five years ago. What would she be the most surprised by? How do you see Zion in the next five years changing?
ZM: Zion from five years ago would be happy that she would be back at Noble so soon, but shocked that it would be so fast. She would want to help because she understands both sides of the fence. Noble has shaped me into the person I am by shaping my work ethic, taught me the importance of punctuality, how to dress appropriately for work environment, how to behave in work environment, etc. It was because people invested time in me, and I want to give back and to be the confidant that I had been given. It’s very important that these students know that there is someone who cares about them. They need to feel cared about, and know that they’re more than a number or statistic. I felt cared about when I was at Noble, and it’s important to me that the students now know that there is someone who also cares about them.
ZM: I think that Lion’s Pride will be at every Noble campus in the next five years. Lion’s Pride has the potential to go out of Noble, and integrate bigs and littles from other schools. I hope that we’re able to expand to any and all school campuses that are interested, maybe with even more capacity and space for more students.
LP: We know that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are incredibly important in the education space. What do you think are steps that need to be taken to work towards this goal?
ZM: Speaking for our campuses, we know that representation matters. At The Noble Academy, the people who oversee our programs are very diverse and showcase a broad range of people of color. Having students see who is managing the programs, who’s teaching and instructing is very important. That as well as working with littles one on one, and making sure that we remind our bigs that they need support too. Offering support on both sides, and making sure that students are aware that you’re there to give it is very important. It helps them get what they need so that they can later give back. It’s always important to ask bigs what support I can offer to help them, because you can only support others best when you are who you need to be first.
Rapid Fire Q&A
Favorite spot in the city?
The Kenwood Hyde-Park Bronzeville Area. I grew up deeply integrated and involved with the arts so this area holds a lot of significance for me
Deep dish pizza? Yes or no.
Favorite museum in the city?
Museum of Science and Industry. My favorite part of the museum is the Crystals, Diamonds, and Gems exhibit.
What are you looking forward to the most as the weather gets warmer?
Outdoor events. Silverroom block party, Dancing Under the Stars, Movies in Millennium, Jazz Concerts, etc.
Underrated thing to do in Chicago?
Watching the sunrise at South Shore Community Center
Overrated thing to do in Chicago?
Tour of Chicago
Dalonte Burns Biography
Dalonte Burns is a father, husband, educator, and leader here in Chicago. He is a first-generation college graduate and a native Chicagoan, born and raised on the westside.
Dalonte graduated from Noble Street College Prep and has worn many hats within the Noble Schools community including serving as a Paraprofessional, Learning Specialist, Dean of Specialized Services and Dean of Instruction at Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy before transitioning to his alma mater Noble Street College Prep where he served as Principal Resident.
Dalonte has committed his life’s work to education to serve his community in order to elevate and bring attention to the power of those most marginalized. He’s a firm believer in liberatory education being a key lever to multi-generational transformation.
Lion’s Pride (LP): You have been in education for over a decade now. What initially inspired you to pursue a career in education?
Dalonte Burns (DB): The thing that initially inspired me was how transformational it was for my father. My father was in insurance sales for most of his work life and the year before he passed away, he worked at a school, a Noble school.
He worked at Rowe-Clark and that year I was also in my first year of college. I’m the first one in my family to go to college so we would talk almost every day. The conversations wouldn’t be about me. It would start off with “how’s it going?” and then he would share all of these stories about his experiences now in education and the relationships he was building with students.
This let me know that there was something special happening because he would also have a certain level of joy that last year working at Rowe-Clark that I didn’t see before. Years later, I was at a gas station in the suburbs, far away from Rowe-Clark, and I came across a person that said, “I know you.” I responded “hey” even though I didn’t know them and they said “you’re Mr. Burns’s son.” I told them, “oh yea, that was my dad” and then they went on for five minutes about the impact he had on their lives in just the one year that he had with them.
Right at that moment, I realized there was something special about the work happening in schools. I always respected educators, but I think in that moment it just showed education is something that is transformational and spoke to the power of legacy. A legacy that I was also a part of with my own experience with education, being someone who was the first person in their family to go to college. Hearing that student share their story let me know how important this work is and once I had the opportunity to work in schools, I never got out.
The impact we have goes beyond our lifetime. We just never know our impact and I am grateful that sometimes we have folks that come back to tell us.
LP: That experience you had with your father is extremely powerful. Have you experienced any of those moments for yourself with a student you have taught who years later shared the personal impact you had on their life?
DB: I actually think about a parent, that’s the first one that comes to mind. It was the first group of students that I graduated. I was their advisor. It was after graduation, after the refreshments and the speeches, I am going to the parking lot and a parent runs up to me and just gives me the biggest hug. She’s in tears and tells me thank you and talks about the impact that I had on her son. I had no awareness of the impact and I didn’t think I had done anything, but she just kept going on and on about how grateful she was.
It makes me think about how the impact we have goes beyond our lifetime. We just never know our impact and I am grateful that sometimes we have folks that come back to tell us. I am hoping that the thing that I did, the work that I did with that student has a lasting impact. I am a recipient of that long lasting impact with the teachers I had in my life. And the thing that I experienced as a Black man in education, I am able to have a similar impact on someone else who looks like me, a Black boy.
LP: Transitioning a little bit to your work in regards to education equity. It is a phrase that we have heard so many times over the past two years and you have shared that you believe “education equity is providing students with opportunities to engage in education as a practice of freedom, positioning students with both the ability and opportunity to become active agents in the transformation of their world.” Can you elaborate more on what this means to you? How do you see your role as principal as working towards creating those experiences for students?
DB: When I think about liberation, I think about having the opportunity and ability to actualize your deepest aspirations. I don’t see it as just an output, I see it as an input. Not only what does it look like when we leave a space, but also what does it look like while we are engaging in a space? How are we engaging in that liberatory experience that speaks to the idea of who we are becoming? How do classrooms and school spaces become that for our students?
That’s the thing I hope to become as a principal in that when students walk into UIC College Prep, they are able to live out their aspirations. And it can be as simple as “I just need to make it through the day. I’ve had a rough morning” or “I am trying to re-evaluate the relationships I am in and my friendships.” How do we create that space where a student goes from “I want to raise my GPA” to “I want to engage in critical analysis about what I am learning?” Whatever the thing is, I want students to have the opportunity to take up space to live out those aspirations.
One thing that has been the history of what it meant to be a person of color, and speaking to my personal experience, a Black man in America, is not having the opportunity to live out or even at times, to discover those aspirations. For a long time, I have been trying to become a thing I did not see in front of me by being the first.
That used to be something I would say or I would hear others say with a sense of pride: “I am the first.” But there is also a little bit of that feeling like “dang, I shouldn’t be the first.”
I think folks still being the first speaks to the fact that we are not far removed from some of the things that have specifically impacted Black folks even though we try to create that distance in time. We are not that far removed and we are still in the early stages of trying to breakthrough so we can breathe and have the opportunity to live out our wildest dreams. I’m hoping schools can be a place where students have the opportunity to actualize that and that schools are not a microcosm of the experience of a Black man in America.
It’s hard because our educational system was grounded and created on these White supremacist and colonial practices. Now we have a unique and hard opportunity to really re-imagine what it looks like. But, it’s been like that for centuries and we have four years with a kid to try to do that. That’s hard.
LP: Our vision at Lion’s Pride is similar to yours where we want to provide a space where students can share their voices; for students to be able to feel like they have some say in programming and are free to take a journey in exploration and exploring who they are. When you think about our model with students being mentors and our curriculum which allows students to have these deep conversations and discussions, what are the things you are most looking forward to this year when it comes to the impact of the Lion’s Pride program on UICCP students? What do you hope students say about their experience in the program?
DB: If students say nothing else, I hope they say they felt seen, they felt heard, they felt valued, and that they belong. I want students to really speak to this sense of belonging. I believe that’s what we need to be able to position ourselves as a place for students to pursue those aspirations.
And we have to now deal with our own biases and mindsets and how to interrogate the things like the word “disrespect.” We have to question how what used to be defined as disrespect isn't actually disrespect, but a bias people have from their upbringing and in doing so, making sure we are not using our position of power to use this word of “disrespect” to silence the voices of students.
That tension is real, that tension is hard, but I also think there’s some beauty in that because I think that’s part of the transformational process in trying to re-imagine our schools. For example when someone hears a Black girl get loud and they get triggered as an adult when really the student is just happy. The question becomes how do I unpack that for myself so I am not silencing their joy and creating a space where they feel they don’t belong? Or how do I ensure students have that space to make a mistake and for it to be ok instead of a threat to the safety of the community?
Another question is how do we make sure we are not responding in a way to criminalize them? That can be what our educational system does for our students. But then when it's students who come from a place of privilege, it’s “boys will be boys.” Our students don’t get a chance to experience that forgiveness.
LP: That extension of grace is important and ensuring everyone receives that grace is the work we are tasked with. If you had to summarize your one big thing for schools to think about this year and this current moment when it comes to addressing student sense of belonging and personal biases in the education system to create equitable outcomes for students?
DB: I would say how do we create conditions in our schools for everybody to experience a sense of belonging. I know our kids are the focal point of our work, but even from a leadership perspective, what does it also mean for our staff community? How do we create those conditions for our entire school community to experience that sense of belonging and embrace that plus take ownership? Like whatever position we have, how do I ensure that I am making space for my colleagues so they feel seen, feel heard, and feel valued, and feel that belonging? So in summary, creating conditions so our community can experience a sense of belonging.
A Native Chicagoan Q&A
LP: Cubs or Sox?
DB: Sox even though I’m westside
LP: Sears Tower or Willis Tower?
DB: Sears Tower
LP: Deep dish or thin crust?
DB: I am going to go with thin crust. I don’t want to have to need a knife and fork to eat my pizza. Get a nice slice I can eat with my hands
LP: How do you like your Italian beef?
DB: Lightly dipped, not all the way drench with extra mozzarella cheese. I don’t need the extra peppers and not too much dip because then it runs all over the plate
LP: Favorite museum?
DB: The first thing that came to my mind was The Field Museum, but I don’t know how much I agree with what I am saying. Part of me wants to say the Shedd Aquarium. I haven’t been there in a long time, but I will say the Shedd Aquarium.
LP: Favorite Summertime Chi activity?
DB: Going to my mom’s house with my cousins and my siblings, hanging out on the deck, just getting outside with family.
The first official COVID-19 case in the United States was recorded on January 20, 2020. Two months later, the United States went into lockdown as cases began increasing. Schools across the country went from in-person classes to virtual learning. Restaurants went to takeout only. Only grocery stores and other essential services were open to the public.
No one could have imagined that 2020, the start of a new decade, would bring so many hardships. Among those hardships were students who historically struggled the most with school having to adjust to learning online, studying at home, and for some, completing work without access to the internet at home, often resorting to going to other areas near their home to get internet access.
When we spoke with high school students within the Lion’s Pride programs, they discussed how the pandemic has affected their studying. Daisy Nieto, high school graduate from UIC College Prep and a first year at University of Chicago had much to share on her experience. When asked how much learning has been a challenge for her, Nieto stated that, “it was significantly harder to stay focused last year when school was virtual, so in that way, yes, learning was greatly hindered.”
Daisy Nieto was a Big for the Lion’s Pride program during the 2020-2021 school year and appreciated how the Lion’s Pride supported her during the pandemic. “Programming helped me understand a bit more about planning for the long-term and helped me think about things I hadn't considered before,” said Nieto.
Similar to Nieto, Ryan Garcia, Manager of Pre-college and Career Exploration at Noble Schools, saw the direct impact of the pandemic on students and the continued struggles students are experiencing firsthand as a result of last school year’s remote learning. While trying to accelerate learning recovery has led to schools feeling that they should be doing more, Garcia does not think that approach is what is best at this time.
“It's hard to picture what schools could be doing in a sense of the word ‘more’ as I imagine there's a lot they're already doing with trying to adjust to how the pandemic affected their lives as well,” said Garcia. “I believe schools should take this opportunity to look at the systemic approaches to providing education and try to better utilize the time that students spend in classrooms by offering other opportunities to experience things that will help them in their future.”
A study conducted by Lurie Children’s Hospital highlighted the impact of the pandemic on student mental health specifically with 1,500 parents reporting that 44% of their children experienced changes in their mental health which led to disorders. However, only 18% of those students got professional help, a statistic that Lion's Pride hopes to change with our programming.
In the past year, Lion’s Pride as an organization has recognized an increase of our students when it came to them expressing depression and frustration with online school. In response to student needs, Lion's Pride has been working with students on how to better prioritize their studies while also attending to their social-emotional needs. Through programming, we have taught students on how to manage their time and what strategies they can use to improve their overall mental health to no longer feel stressed about school work during this time.
Students are generally having trouble staying focused in this post-lockdown world and would like more to be done within the schools to support their transition back into the classroom. More learning support and engagement opportunities to help them excel in the classrooms such as the Lion's Pride program can help students not feel they have to rely solely on themselves to succeed. As we approach the end of 2021, we believe the new year can bring more ways for schools to continue supporting their students and make sure they are taking care of themselves academically and mentally. Lion's Pride is just one of many ways students can receive the support they need to find success in school. For more information about the Lion's Pride program, email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
September 3 marked the first day of school for students at Golder College Prep. Students returned to lots of changes at the building in Noble Square, with many students returning for the first time since March 2020. Among those changes was the addition of the Lion’s Pride program which students would hear about during the second week of school.
Naketa Jones is no stranger to the Lion’s Pride program, having worked at Baker College Prep when the program was founded in 2017. Jones saw first hand the impact of the program on many of the students she worked with as a school culture specialist and is excited to bring the program Golder in her role as Assistant Dean of Ninth Grade.
“I have been advocating for Lion’s Pride for 2 years. I think it is timing and a shift to more SEL programming that created an opening here at Golder. I’ve also watched the program grow from the beginning and the Bigs and Littles have had enormous success,” said Jones.
The Lion’s Pride program aims to support ninth grade students in their transition from eighth grade to high school through peer mentorship. In addition to addressing the differences between grammar school and high school, programming this year will support students in returning to in-person school after a year and a half of virtual learning.
Students need to be retaught it’s ok to feel, it’s ok to not have it together, and it’s ok to ask for help.
Jones believes the Lion’s Pride program will allow her to address the most pressing needs of students at this time such as “ adjusting to time, travel, and being around peers that have had little interaction with for the past year.” Jones is especially interested in the social-emotional development of ninth grade students and learning soft skills necessary for success in high school and beyond.
When it comes to students’ needs related to mental health and navigating challenges outside of school, Jones believes that students need, “to be retaught it’s ok to feel, it’s ok to not have it together, and it’s ok to ask for help.” Jones plans to execute the program by leveraging her strength of “serving our youth on a daily basis to meet them where they are and see them grow as human beings” and using student data to assess the program and ensure “students have received all that the program has to offer.”
While there is much to consider when starting a new program within a school, Jones has high hopes for the Lion’s Pride program at Golder this year and its ability to positively impact the students and contribute to the overall growth of Golder.
“I am looking forward to our upperclassmen shining and developing skills that will put them at an advantage in their post-secondary choices. I am also excited for our freshmen to gain peer-to-peer acquaintances and the ability to advocate for themselves.”
The Lion's Pride mission is simple: to empower youth leaders to guide incoming high school freshmen to reach their fullest potential. Yet it would not be achievable without the contribution and dedication of Lion's Pride "Bigs" like Jercura Kindred.
Jercura has been inspired by the mission throughout her time as a “Big” and views her role as a mentor as having had a positive impact on her own life aspirations. She describes being a Lion’s Pride Big as "one of my proudest achievements. Pride has not only allowed me to connect with younger students, but has also enhanced me as an individual and the way I look at people and the relationships I have with them."
What drew Jercura to Lion’s Pride? Initially, Jercura viewed Pride as a resume builder for college. It ended up being much more and "something that I genuinely love and decided to carry on doing my senior year." She's even reached out to her friends and fellow students, encouraging them to become involved with Pride. Why? Because of the people. Jercura's favorite part about being a Big has been the connections she's made.
Pride has pushed me to do things that I may not have had the courage to do on my own
"The relationships I have built and lessons that I have learned have been my favorite part,” said Jercura. “It's one thing to go to school with people, but it's another thing to engage with... your peers in an open setting that allows you to work on yourself and to sit back and reflect with others on things you might not have had the opportunity to express."
At the same time, through her relationships with her Littles, Pride has encouraged Jercura to grow as a student and a person. "Pride has pushed me to do things that I may not have had the courage to do on my own and has opened my eyes to new experiences that I never thought I'd want to engage in.
What's in Jercura's future, beyond Pride? Jercura is certain she will use what she's learned as a Big throughout the rest of her academic career. "There are many things that I strive to implement ... but the main lesson is to be self-aware and to not worry about things outside of my locus of control. Everything that is meant to happen, will happen, and as long as I am being my authentic self, everything will be okay.”