Renee M. Witherspoon Carter – Helping Students Overcome Mentality of Trauma
Renee M. Witherspoon Carter has been with Camelot Education for six years. She began her career as a teacher and has risen to become an academic leader and now the principal at Excel Academy South Shore in Chicago. She’s been praised and honored as Camelot’s National Teacher of the Year and attributes her success to several factors.
“First I would say it’s my passion for educating our youth,” she said. “It’s definitely a lot of hard work but also the willingness to do the work. Most importantly is the support and encouragement I received from my peers. They saw something in me and helped me to develop my leadership skills. That’s what we do at Camelot though; we’re always supporting and encouraging one another.”
Excel Academy South Shore is an accelerated school; a choice for students who are 15-21 years old and who have fallen critically behind in their studies. The program offers an extended day, where students can earn up to 5 credits per semester and 10 credits per year. This allows students to graduate in 2.5 years or less. Excel Academy is dedicated to creating a challenging, academically rigorous, and most of all, a safe environment for all students.
Carter said helping the students at South Shore re-engage means helping to see beyond their present circumstances, which most of the time aren’t good. For many of them, South Shore is often the first and only place where they’ve received any encouragement. Chicago’s South Shore, like many inner city urban environments is plagued by violence, and many of Camelot’s students have been exposed to it.
“Our students come from troubled environments and we have to find out what motivates them if we’re going to help them succeed,” she said. “They have to see a future for themselves and that’s not an easy thing to accomplish when their main concern is day to day survival. These are young people who are grounded in the immediate. We help them see beyond those temporary circumstances – to see beyond that.”
How the Camelot staff works to meet students’ needs is always an on-going process.
“We have a saying at South Shore; ‘Teamwork makes the dream work.’ This can be a stressful job. Sometimes it seems as though we care about the students more than they care about themselves. We’re always mutually supporting one another and that helps us to stay focused on educating our students. They have to see that there can be a future; that they can rise above their present circumstances and that what happens in the streets doesn’t have to define who they are or will be.”
Excel Academy South Shore represents an oasis in that desert.
“Helping our students overcome the mentality of trauma is difficult but it can be done,” she said. “They are beset by fears, fear of what’s going to happen next. Some of them are afraid of even being successful in life. Some of our students are so afraid that they mess up on purpose. I said this before and I’ll repeat it; for many of our students, Camelot is the most supportive place in their lives. Here, they learn not just academics but they get the tools to thrive beyond high school. That’s why we do what we do. We teach them to become assets, that they’re not just a person society wrote off. It’s great to see them come shining through. We’re changing and saving lives and that’s the best reward.”