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PROGRAM SPOTLIGHT: Richland One’s School-Based Mentoring Programs Mold Students into Leaders While Providing Support


Samuel Farias and Monica Brunson

Leaders have several qualities that make people look up to them. They care about their community. They care about their classmates, teammates and co-workers. They strive for success for themselves and others. Richland One’s school-based mentoring programs help students develop their leadership skills starting as early as third grade.


The Panda Pearls, the female mentoring program at Pine Grove Elementary School, has been around for more than a decade. Third-grade teacher and Panda Pearls advisor Nicollette Brannum teaches her 30 students in the program about self-esteem, confidence and leadership.


“Our children have a mind of their own. They have their own thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, they need a way to be guided to vocalize how they feel in a safe place. We provide them the tools and strategies to be who they are and to be confident in themselves,” said Brannum.


Fifth-grade student Monica Brunson says when she joined the Panda Pearls two years ago, she wasn’t comfortable talking in front of people. Now, she says she feels much more confident in herself.


“I feel like I can talk. I can say anything. I can do anything I put my mind to,” Monica said.


The Panda Pearls’ male counterpart, the Premier Pandas, is in its first year of operation. Twenty-two boys were accepted into the program this school year, including fifth-grader Samuel Farias. He says he enjoys helping others and believes the Premier Pandas has helped him serve as a role model for other students.


“I see that things are rough with other students in my class and I want to change that and help others. I can be an example for others and they’d be like ‘Oh. This guy is doing this. Maybe if I do this, I’ll change my attitude,” Samuel said.


To join either program, students must fill out an application, get a letter of recommendation from a teacher, write an essay about why they want to join and participate in an interview. Once students are accepted, they meet with their respective programs twice a week.  


Both programs start their meetings with students reciting a pledge that emphasizes their confidence.


“I want students to not only be part of the program, but I want them to know why they’re part of the program,” said Joseph Bell, Pine Grove fourth-grade teacher and Premier Pandas advisor.


Students in both programs are dressed up during every meeting and whenever a significant person or organization visits Pine Grove. The Panda Pearls wear pink cardigans and pearl necklaces. The Premier Pandas wear blue cardigans with bowties and white dress shirts. Bell says by having students dress the same, it creates a better culture for the students.


“If they all walk into the classroom, get dressed, help each other put their bowties on, make sure the same buttons are correct, it takes them to a whole other level as third- through fifth-grade students,” he said.


During each meeting, the students engage in activities meant to help them explore their character traits as well as grow as leaders. In one Panda Pearls meeting, Brannum had the students draw how they saw themselves in a mirror. The girls then shared what they drew.


Brannum says the skills students learn will benefit them as they grow up.


“We want the students to know they have a voice and they are important. They can go and do great things. We want our girls to go out and be great leaders, not just in our schools but also out in the community,” she said.


Bell says he wishes he had a program like the Premier Pandas when he was in elementary school.


“I think it would’ve created a different path for a lot of the guys in my school. I wanted to make sure here we have the benefits of promoting something like this for our gents,” he said.


Middle school is often seen as a period where students aren’t kids, but they’re not necessarily teenagers yet. Sometimes students go down a bad path academically and behaviorally during that time. Alcorn Middle School’s mentoring programs, the Knight OWLLS (Outstanding, Wise, Loyal Leaders of Society) for girls and Boys 2 Men for boys, provide their members guidance and a brotherhood and sisterhood they can rely on.

Knight OWWLS

“It’s so easy to get distracted with all these negative influences. When you have a group of students who share some common goals, beliefs, ethics and morals, I feel it helps them stay the course,” said Devanand Maharajh, Alcorn school social worker and advisor of Boys 2 Men.


Seventh-grade student Jahziel Shells says he and his fellow Boys 2 Men members didn’t really know each other when they first met. Now, he says they have each other’s backs.


“Throughout our sessions, we became more like brothers. Every time we need something, we’ll just call them up or meet them at school and ask them how they’re doing,” Jahziel said.


Claire Amaker, Alcorn school counselor and advisor of the Knight OWLLS, pairs her students with someone they don’t know during their meetings. She says it helps them get used to meeting new people as well as holding each other accountable.


“A lot of times, we’re not going to get along, but they have to learn how to develop conflict resolution, problem-solving and interpersonal skills,” said Amaker.


Because of this strategy, eighth-grade student Shaniya Wise sees her fellow students in the Knight OWLLS as her mentors.


“We’re like the same age, so I’d like to see their perspective on different things that have come past them or that they have seen,” Shaniya said.


The groups also read books together, have guest speakers, hold etiquette lunches and go on field trips to places such as the University of South Carolina, the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, and the International African-American Museum in Charleston.


Shaniya says trips and activities like these have influenced her future.


“It really inspired me to want to go to college and do different things in life,” she said.


Boys 2 MenMaharajh says one of the most impactful activities Boys 2 Men partakes in is a lunch buddies program at Brookland Baptist Church. Through the program, the students meet with different people and organizations including the 100 Black Men of Greater Columbia, college students and prominent members of the community.


“To me, I feel it’s very impactful because the boys have the opportunity to wear their shirts, ties and dress clothes. They talk about etiquette, being professional, going to college and finances,” he said.


Leadership and community service go hand in hand in C.A. Johnson High School’s male mentoring group, the C.A. Johnson Hornets Ambassadors Leadership Club. Dameon Franklin, program advisor and C.A. Johnson’s athletics director, exposes his 15 students to groups in the community who may be at difficult points in their lives. The activities the students engage in include feeding the homeless and talking with veterans who don’t have family members to turn to.


“We want the community to see our students giving back and becoming those ambassadors with the qualities that we want our young people to have,” said Franklin.


Members of the C.A. Johnson Hornets Ambassadors Leadership Club also read to students at Richland One elementary schools. Senior Caleb Pearson says these school visits, especially when he’s wearing his football jersey, help inspire the next generation of young leaders.


“These students are like ‘I want to be just like him. He’s pretty cool.’ Hopefully it makes their day better,” he said.


One of the highlights for all of the high school male mentoring groups in Richland One is Clemson University’s Men of Color National Summit. The goal of the event is to bridge the opportunity gap and illuminate pathways after high school for African-American/Black and Hispanic/Latinx males and their allies.


The Summit brings together approximately 2,000 high school and college students, business professionals, educators, government officials and community leaders from around the country, emphasizing the importance of education, best practices and choices to increase high school and college graduation rates.


Caleb says he learned a lot of life-changing information during the event.


“It really gave a lot of information about how to keep your life stable, keep up with your money and a lot of other stuff that’s really important to today’s society,” he said.


Students who are accepted into the school-based mentoring programs aren’t just the students with the highest grades. Franklin notes that one student in his group has a grade point average below 2.0, but he has the potential to be a great leader.


“We look at the qualities outside of just academics. Sometimes, the student with a 2.3 or 2.5 GPA has a ton of leadership qualities and students flock to that,” he said.


Amaker says she looks for “middle students,” those with B’s and C’s in their classes but have a strong character.


“We want those middle students because they can relate to both types of students, those with straight A’s and those who need more assistance academically,” she said.


Monica hopes to one day become a chef and entrepreneur. She says the Panda Pearls has better prepared her for middle school, high school and beyond.


“I think I’ll be able to go through life with the skills that I’ve learned here,” Monica said.