Inspired to Know: Black Excellence
Inspired to Know is a story series designed to tell the little-known stories of our Eden Prairie Schools community. Our hope is to provide a glimpse into student life to showcase the amazing contributions of our Eden Prairie Schools students and staff to our state, region, nation and world.
Giving back to her community has always been a priority for Deja Alexander. As a former Central Middle School student, Alexander now leads one of its biggest student groups.
Alexander, the African American cultural liaison at Central Middle School, knows from personal experience – and that of her students – how Black students struggle to talk about complex personal issues in school. Starting in September of 2021, Alexander decided to foster these connections by creating Black Excellence, an extra-curricular student group that supports and celebrates Black and African American students.
One hundred students later, Black Excellence is one of the most popular student groups at Central Middle School. While all are welcome at group meetings, the space is particularly enriching for Black and African American students.
In Black Excellence, students have their own space to talk about their day and to keep each other excited and motivated about school and extracurricular activities. It’s positively changing the way these students view themselves at school.
Amanda Ojo, a sixth grade student at Central Middle School, is new to the group and is already thinking of new ways to get the word out about Black Excellence.
“I’d like to see more people come together as they start to learn about other people’s culture and about themselves,” Ojo said.
Inspired by a need for more support structures, understanding
The foundation for Black Excellence was set out years prior by Felicia Thames, now principal of Prairie View Elementary. She began her career at Eden Prairie Schools as a first and second grade teacher at Forest Hills, then became a dean at Central Middle School before assuming her current role as principal of Prairie View Elementary School.
Thames immediately saw at Forest Hills that families of color were struggling to connect with the larger school community.
“At that time, a number of families of color were moving to Eden Prairie, who were mostly families of immigrants and African-Americans that didn’t know how to navigate the system,” Thames said.
Thames started the group FRESH, Friends Reaching Educational Stardom in Harmony, in an effort to address these issues. The group provided homework help for students and technical support for families.
“The goal was to attempt to better support these families so their students had a better experience at school,” Thames continued to say.
Supporting the community
When Alexander, a new student coming from Crest View Elementary in Osseo Area Schools, moved to Eden Prairie when she was in sixth grade, she struggled to find her group of friends. She and Thames, then a dean at Central Middle School, connected instantly.
“I was getting in trouble and wouldn’t listen, but Ms. Thames would have my back,” Alexander said. “Seeing her, knowing she wanted me to come back every day just meant the world to me. I didn’t mind coming to school anymore.”
Alexander is bringing that same energy to Black Excellence. She credits Thames as being one of the driving forces behind her motivation to start the group.
“Felicia inspired me to come back to the district and continue to make a change that I know was needed [for our families],” Alexander said.
Although FRESH is no longer active, the idea still lives on through Black Excellence, which continues to meet the needs of today’s students.
Braeland Moten, a seventh grade student at Central Middle School, feels his involvement with the group has transformed his experience at CMS.
“I’ve been able to make new friends and learn new things about myself that I didn’t know before joining,” Moten said.
Beyond Black Excellence
Black Excellence is not only focused on building academic skills, but also on creating a student-led leadership environment.
Alexander helped to create the Eden Prairie Schools chapter of Dare to Be Real, a national initiative to connect interracial and intercultural students from middle school with their high school-level peers. The students participate in fundraisers and community work with their high school-level peers, as well as having one-on-one sessions with highschoolers.
Aleeyah Moore Sims, a seventh grade student at Central Middle School, is one of those students. “Since joining Black Excellence, I’ve found that I’m just more comfortable around new people,” Moore Sims said.
Alexander has more she hopes to do with students throughout the school year, such as bringing new speakers in to present, starting a book project to encourage reading, going on more field trips, facilitating an ethics course, and exploring topics of African American history during meetings.
Next year, the group is planning to sponsor a cultural event at the new Central Middle School Performing Arts Center, where the entire community will be invited to share in the celebration of different cultures.
Showing up in support of each student
Thames’ and Alexander’s efforts through Black Excellence help to recognize Black and African-American students and their lived experiences, leading to a stronger overall Eden Prairie Schools community.
“When we serve ALL students through having groups like Black Excellence, it can impact the relationships students have with each other and with their teachers,” Thames said.
Eden Prairie Schools’ mission of Inspiring Each Student Every Day is lived through groups like Black Excellence, and we’re happy to make these support structures a part of our Strategic Mission.
At the start of the 2021-22 school year, schools were outfitted with new learning environments that enhance teacher and student interactions. In addition, teachers began developing emotional intelligence-based strategies that make EACH student feel welcome and supported by their classroom, school and greater community.
We are grateful for staff like Deja Alexander who live the Eden Prairie Schools mission of Inspiring Each Student Every Day.