An alternative to gangs: Junior Giant Kings


Young leaders make their mark at UIndy and beyond

An interesting side of David Johnson’s work at Lynhurst 7th and 8th Grade Center involves the Junior Giant Kings, a group of minority students making a name for themselves not only in their own school but also among educators in Indiana and across the country. Lynhurst formed the group in response to reported tensions, both locally and nationwide, between African-American and Latino students. About 30 young men representing both backgrounds were selected to join.

Now in eighth grade, with support from Johnson and several colleagues, the students meet daily in homeroom to discuss relevant issues and reinforce each other’s roles as positive leaders and mediators in the school and community. Some of the kids are concerned about relatives and friends who are living undocumented in the United States. In one case, the group talked a classmate out of joining a gang.

“It’s like a peer intervention that happens,” Johnson says. “We talk about all kinds of subjects.”

A second group of Kings has been inducted to carry the torch as eighth-graders next year, and another group is expected to follow. The school corporation has noted the value of the program and has considered replicating it in other buildings.

Kings hit the road
As for the Kings’ unlikely debut as education consultants and graduate-level college instructors—seriously—that came through assistant professor Azure Dee Smiley, who teaches secondary education courses, focusing on special ed and cultural and family issues. Some of her classes meet at Lynhurst, where college students can learn by observing and assisting full-time staff. Smiley also teaches in UIndy’s Woodrow Wilson program, including a course called Education 601: Project in Equity and Diversity. A year ago, while preparing for the second-year cohort of Woodrow Wilson fellows at the University, she got the idea to incorporate the Kings as co-teachers.

After meeting with their families, she and Johnson arranged to bring some of the students to UIndy last summer for three sessions, in which they told the Fellows about their lives—and the practical issues those freshly minted teachers will face in the classroom.

“The Kings bring a level of expertise to the course that I cannot offer,” Smiley says. “They have lived my research.”

The boys even received paychecks for their work: $25 each. “I have a picture of that,” Johnson says. “You would think they’d hit the lottery.”

Since then, the Junior Giant Kings and their Lynhurst faculty sponsors have been on the speaking circuit, talking about the successful program to the Wayne Township School Board, at an Indianapolis Public Schools conference for central Indiana educators, and in December at the annual statewide education-reform conference sponsored by UIndy’s Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning.
The Kings’ sponsors also traveled to Nevada in November to speak at the annual conference of the National Association for Multicultural Education. They hope to bring some of the students along to present at this year’s conference in Chicago. And an education publisher has enlisted Smiley to write a guide for creating similar programs, aimed at educators from preschool through college; proceeds will support the Wayne Township program.

But the real success, Johnson says, is what happens in that Westside classroom every day. He’s more than a little pleased that some of the Kings are planning to become teachers.

“To take these stereotypes on, and see them become friends with people from other backgrounds, that’s really strong,” he says. “I’m just honored to be a part of that.”