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Piper High School students come together to make their voices heard

November 19, 2021

As schools around the region move toward creating Real World Learning environments and opportunities, the most important voices in the process belong to students. 

Student voices historically are the ones most likely to go unsought and overlooked in education – and students belonging to minority groups often have the most difficulty making themselves heard.

At Piper High School in Wyandotte County, Black students are changing that dynamic. They have come together to make their collective voices heard in significant and creative ways. Six years ago, with the encouragement of some teachers and staffers, they formed a club, Black Leaders of America.  

We [Black Leaders of America] are a group of Black students in the building. We come together to talk about different issues that we find in the school and how to deal with them. Our role is to teach each other, be with each other, and be a source of support.

— Langston Bassett
Senior and Member of Black Leaders of America, Piper High School

“We are a group of Black students in the building,” said Langston Bassett, a senior. “We come together to talk about different issues that we find in the school and how to deal with them. Our role is to teach each other, be with each other, and be a source of support.”

In the early days, students said, the group struggled a bit to find its footing. 

“We were kind of on the fence,” said Jillian Collier, a junior and the group’s president. “Are we a diversity club, or are we a Black leaders club?”

As student leaders grew more confident and willing to confront troublesome situations, they fully embraced the responsibility not only of acting as leaders within the school but also of encouraging the leadership qualities of Black students.

“We’re not stating that we’re the only leaders in the school,” Collier said. “We’re just saying that our Black students are also leaders. I feel like, for a long time at Piper, Black students were not seen as leaders or given opportunities to be a leader.”

According to the most recent demographic information published by the Kansas Department of Education, Black students make up 21% of Piper High School’s enrollment. Latino students account for almost 16%. White student enrollment, which was 60% two years ago, dropped to 55% in the 2020-21 school year.

“We are changing out here in Piper,” said Amber Buck, the district’s coordinator of community relations, partnerships, and inclusion. “We’re just becoming more diverse.”

The changes have not come without backlash. A few years ago, someone scribbled a racist and threatening message in a school bathroom. And someone crashed a Zoom meeting of Black Leaders of America students last year with racist slurs and comments.

The group has responded to those incidents by speaking forcefully to the administration and other students. 

We’re tired as a people of always having to defend and explain why something’s wrong, why something’s inequitable.

— Jillian Collier
Junior and President of Black Leaders of America, Piper High School

“Sometimes our verbiage comes across as irritated and annoyed,” Collier said. “Because we’re tired. We’re tired as a people of always having to defend and explain why something’s wrong, why something’s inequitable.”

But Black Leaders of America has worked hard to be a positive force at Piper High School. Members seek to create a dialogue on topics such as the distinction between racism and prejudice. They plan activities intended to bring depth to Black History Month. And members support one another.

Over the summer, Collier, who became president at the end of the last school year, began texting the club’s executive board members about an idea. 

Collier’s mother, a deputy superintendent in Kansas City Public Schools, is on the planning team for Amplify: Empowering KC’s Educators of Color for Student Success. The annual event, hosted by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, brings local and national educators of color together to amplify one another’s voices.

Jillian Collier wanted to create an event for Black students at Piper High School modeled on that collective energy and empowerment. After many conversations with her peers, the idea took shape as a half-day conference focusing on intersectionality, mental health, entrepreneurship, and scholarship essay writing. And the idea acquired a name: Accelerate: Empowering Students of Color for Success.

Presenters at the Accelerate Conference

  • Jonaie Johnson, entrepreneur and Founder/CEO of Interplay
  • Ritchie Cherry, Sr. entrepreneur and Founder/CEO of BoxOut
  • Cornell Ellis, founder/CEO of The BLOC (Brothers Liberating Our Communities)
  • Chris & George Goode, owner/operator of Ruby Jean’s Juicery
  • Amber Buck, Coordinator of Community Relations, Partnerships & Inclusion for the Piper School District
  • Torrence Allen, Principal of Ruskin High School
  • Lexi Starr, Women’s Speaker/Pastor of Faith City Christian Center

The event took place on Oct. 1 at the Kauffman Conference Center. About 60 students from four high schools attended: Piper, Bishop Miege, Lawrence, and Lawrence Free State.

They were joined by Black entrepreneurs and leaders from the community, who’d responded to invitations from Collier and other board members of Black Leaders of America.

“My students are connected!” Buck boasted.

In interviews a few weeks after the conference, Piper High School students who attended described the event as life-changing.

“I am a strong woman,” said freshman Adriana Lopez. “I learned some things about how to go through the world as a Black woman, as a mixed girl.”

Jahnye Jamison, a senior, said the discussions he attended convinced him he needed more of an interior life. “I don’t always have to be out, hanging out with friends,” he said. “I need to take time out for myself.”

Senior Amiyi Union said that, as the oldest child in her family, she’s had to figure out many things on her own. “So it was nice to hear people who have some life on their backs share their knowledge,” she said. 

Langston Bassett, a senior, had to miss the conference because he was auditioning for a spot in the Kansas all-state choir that day. But he helped plan the event, and the feedback from his peers left him with a couple of takeaways.

“Connections really matter,” he said. “I’ve heard that from everyone who attended. But, on top of that, I see how powerful we are as a people – how we are there for each other and how we can support each other.”

For Jillian Collier, the club’s president and the driving force behind Accelerate, the event’s success was like wind in a sail.

“I felt like it validated me as a Black leader,” she said. “Now I know I can excel as a Black leader in this school and I can excel as a Black leader in my world. Everything that happened validated for me that I’m just as worthy as anybody else to lead.”

I feel like it [the Accelerate Conference] really validated me as a Black leader. Now I know I can excel as a Black leader in this school, and I can excel as a Black leader in my world. Everything that happened validated for me that I’m just as worthy as anybody else to lead.

— Jillian Collier
Junior and President of Black Leaders of America, Piper High School

A group photo of Piper High School students at the Accelerate Conference.
Three Piper High School students present to their peers at the Accelerate Conference.
Three Piper High School presenters pose for a photo behind the podium at the Accelerate Conference.
Piper High School students arrive for the Accelerate Conference.

Editorial Note: Six school districts across the region – Blue Springs School District, Piper School District, Kansas City Public Schools, Raymore Peculiar School District, Guadalupe Centers, and Fort Osage School Districtare participating in a Student Voice collaborative led by the Startland with support from the Kauffman Foundation. Students are developing projects that seek to leverage student voice to create a culture Real World Learning in education.