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R.E.D Program Aims to Empower Middle School Girls

Jul 31, 2017 08:27PM ● Published by Hilary Daninhirsch

Gallery: R.E.D Program [7 Images] Click any image to expand.

Forget ghosts and scary movies. Is there anything that can cause terror in the hearts of girls more than the words “middle school?”

The age in which middle school begins represents a transformative time in life, with many changes happening both physically and emotionally. In addition, kids have to navigate through social media, a new challenge for the current generation that did not exist for their parents.

Recognizing that the transition to middle school can pose challenges, two teachers at Highcliff Elementary in the North Hills School District, Maria Shevchik and Jill Zunic, developed a program for rising middle school girls called R.E.D.: Respecting, Empowering and Developing.

“We thought this would be a great opportunity to educate and inform the girls of the challenges and issues they may be presented with, such as developing healthy relationships, the pros and cons of social media, the dangers and pressures of drug and alcohol use, as well as creating a positive body image,” said Zunic.

The inspiration for the program came from Shevchik’s own experience. When she was in eighth grade at North Allegheny, she participated in a similar program called GOLD, designed to help ease the transition to high school. She recalled, “I was blown away. We got to meet girls from the high school; it was a night devoted to getting to know yourself, getting to know others, and feeling empowered. I know it sounds so cliché, but I thought, ‘If I become a teacher, I’m doing a program like this.’”

The R.E.D. event was held this past April, with 34 girls signing up for the program. With the support of Principal Kristina Bilderback, and led by at least half of the female staff at Highcliff, the girls participated in a variety of activities designed to build confidence. 

“We kicked off the night with a collective canvas painting, led by one of Highcliff’s art teachers, Sara Strezempek,” said Shevchik, adding that all of the girls came together to paint a sunflower. The sunflower was purposefully chosen as it represented being proud, being bright, and being different.

Other activities included Zumba, a self-defense demonstration by a Ross Township police officer, and healthy cooking. The R.E.D. team also brought in a guest speaker, Jordan Corcoran, an empowerment coach who is the founder of Listen Lucy, a safe online space where folks can express their issues and struggles. “She was definitely the highlight our program,” said Shevchik.

The teachers also made a video and included photos of themselves from middle school so that they would be more relatable to the girls, said Bilderback, adding that they also talked to the students about what they had learned during those tough years. 

The teachers say that the first R.E.D. event was a success, attributing it to overwhelming community support and donations. Shevchik said that they’d like to expand the program to other schools in the district, as well as provide a similar program for boys in the future.

“My hope is that girls left the program feeling empowered and confident to make healthy, positive decisions.  I want the girls to recognize their uniqueness as a strength; to be more accepting of others and to understand the power of kindness,” said Zunic.

“I hope that they love themselves and that they’re proud of who they are,” added Shevchik. “We see a lot of girls entering middle school unsure and not aware that being different is okay. I hope that they walk away feeling confident and are able to take on the challenges they see, whether academic or social, and know that teachers are there to support them.”

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