For 30 years, the organization has empowered girls to live out the PEARLS values: Personal Responsibility, Empathy, Awareness, Respect, Leadership, and Support. Milwaukee Scholars has an in-house program coordinator, Cassidy Korpela, who works four days a week with fifth through eighth-grade girls.
“The program is awesome,” Nikole Laskov, Milwaukee Scholars principal said. “We were one of three schools to pilot having a staff person inside the school and this is our third year. PEARLS is focused on the social, emotional health, and well-being of teenage girls. Cassidy is wonderful and is part of our school family.”
Korpela meets with 10 student groups in those four days, one hour each week. It is treated like a specials class. In a given year, about 100 girls attend on a regular basis and others come to a few sessions. Korpela says that the majority of fifth through eighth grade girls have attended a handful of sessions and others have participated all three years.
“We create group norms at the beginning of the year. I remind them we created the norms to make our class time a safe place,” said Korpela. “Of course, we can change them, add or subtract from them if we feel that is needed.”
The students start each session with the PEARLS promise. Sometimes Korpela will pick one to focus on or she will ask the girls which one has particular meaning for them right now and why.
“We have check-in questions that can be real goofy or it can be very serious. For example, this week, I asked ‘what do you look for in a friend?’ And that related to another activity to number one through 20, ‘what is most important to me in finding a friend?’” Korpela said. “Then I turn that into a discussion about the top three most important traits. And asking them if they possess these characteristics and reciprocate by being this sort of friend?”
Aiyanna who has been in PEARLS for the past three years said, “PEARLS has taught me to have an open mind. My favorite PEARLS memory was the winter event because there were a lot of positive vibes and energy. I am thankful for my PEARLS sisters because they are very understanding.”
Class sessions vary in activity. Some sessions involve the students listening to Korpela talking about a particular topic and encouraging the students to give feedback about it. Some classes involve activities that they have organized. Somedays, the planned items don’t get done because something else is more important.
PEARLS has a community service piece called Helping Hands in the community. Where each student decides what they would like to do and plans how to go about it.
“COVID has made it a bit more challenging,” Korpela said. “We have kept the service projects more internal. Some girls expressed interest in helping tutor younger kids or just help teachers with random projects. Teachers told us where they could use help. Like a second-grade teacher needed help to teach her students how to use scissors better.
“One group was really adamant that they wanted to mentor younger girls that are struggling with some of the things they did. So, we had a ‘Mini PEARL’ session with our seventh graders leading our third graders. They all paired up and got to know each other. They listened to what was going on in their classroom and then they were able to give them advice,” said Korpela. “We came full circle, reflected and asked the third graders, ‘What did you learn?’ It was super cute. The seventh graders were able to give really honest advice because they know it's something they still struggle with today.”
Zamirah, an eighth-grader and a member for the past three years, said, “I am thankful for my PEARLS sisters because they are always there no matter what. They make me feel comfortable, and I feel like I can be myself around them without thinking that they are judging me.”
Teachers will also touch base with Korpela letting her know that something is a particular issue in the classroom and can she address it in a session. Sometimes an issue just comes up, like talking to the girls about hygiene. The PEARLS classes are a safe space for that conversation.
PEARLS has a curriculum book that provides direction. Korpela says they focus on things like self-love and building relationships. There are also a lot of college and career focus activities. One project involves the students creating vision boards; it can be for the next few months or a year or two into the future.
“We do a lot of goal setting. The girls will set a goal, and then we do check-ins throughout the entire year. They are rewarded for setting it and for reaching it,” said Korpela.
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