Some people may consider it a cliche when they hear others talk about a sense of belonging. But to Sally Marshall, math teacher at Dolores S. Parrott Middle School, nothing is more important for students to succeed.
The first-year teacher observed that students who excel in academics or athletics are involved in groups, clubs or teams. They belong. But she wondered, what happens to the rest of the kids?
A few girls in that "rest" category approached Marshall about that issue early in the school year, so she asked them what they could do.
The answer was quick and resounding: "We can dance."
Marshall got full support from school administration and other teachers to start a Step Club, whose members combine jazz, hip-hop and other dance categories into synchronized dance routines. The drills call for creativity and precision _ and Marshall added a few other requirements when she saw the need for "turning some of these kids around," she said.
She laid out a challenge to the students who wanted to belong to this after-school club, where they could take pride in displaying their dance proficiency.
"Students on the team have to maintain positive behavior, be on good rapport with teachers and keep their grades up. And that's easy to say, for some of them," she said. "But not so easy to do."
Before the dance drills comes an hour of FCAT drills and homework.
Eighth-grader Genesia Booker was among the first to join the Step Club. She used to feel comfortable getting C's.
"At first, I didn't want to do the (home)work," Genesia said. "I was just sitting there being bored, and Ms. Marshall was, like, "If you don't do it, you'll get kicked out of the Step Team,' and I didn't want to do that because dancing is, like, my life."
Genesia, 13, aspires to a career as a hip-hop dancer, hoping to be in music videos. She is captain of the Step Team and now pulls in A's and B's.
"This (Step Club) has helped my confidence level, dancing in front of all the people," she said.
The 20-girl team performs at halftime during basketball games, and they now have one boy member, 13-year-old Quentin Simmons, who has taken on managerial duties, such as handling the music and assisting Marshall. Quentin likes being the only boy.
"It's pretty fun," he said. "It gives me something to do after school."
Some teachers have taken to sending some of their students to Marshall when they think the students need a dose of motivation, and they thank her when those students start doing better academically.
"The day we walked around with our uniform shirts, just the look on their faces, it makes me proud," Marshall said. "It was like they were saying, "I'm a part of something' _ which a lot of them don't have."
Marshall's 11-year-old daughter is in the club because sixth-graders don't participate in sports and have few other options. And Marshall, who volunteers her time for the club, relishes watching the kids dance and doing something they enjoy.
"It makes me feel like I'm 12 again," she said with a laugh.
Marshall hopes that the Step Club catches on even more, and that other students will want that same feeling of belonging. She'd also like to see competitions among the schools in the district that have Step Clubs.
Clarissa Clark, 14 , Annie Marshall, 11, center, and Gebria Booker, 11, practice for the Parrott Middle School Steppers after school. "It gives me a chance to show off my talents," Annie said.
Gebria, 11, front, and Genesia Booker, 13, dance to music during practice for the Parrott Middle School Steppers. "You can have an activity if you don't like sports," Gebria said of belonging to the club.