Arlington Municipal Court’s GRACE Program Helps Middle School Students Learn Self-Confidence, Conflict Resolution and Other Skills for Academic Success
By Susan Schrock, Office of Communications
Posted on May 25, 2023, May 25, 2023

With her father beaming in the audience, T.A. Howard Middle School 8th grader Ofure Aigbefo walked the runway at the GRACE Program’s end-of-year fashion show and high tea with confidence and poise.

Aigbefo, 14, was one of dozens of 7th and 8th grade girls from T.A. Howard and Nichols Junior High celebrating their accomplishments in the Arlington Municipal Court’s mentoring program, which is designed to prevent truancy, school dropouts and juvenile delinquency. As Aigbefo sparkled on the runway in her formal gown and jewelry, the announcer read aloud an affirmation the teenager had written about herself weeks earlier in the program. “My future can change the world,” the card read.

“If you asked me last year if I was going to be walking in a runway show wearing heels and a dress in front of everyone, I would just laugh in your face,” Aigbefo said. “But this experience made me think wow, I’ve grown a lot as a person.”

Students who sign up for or are referred to the GRACE program attend sessions with Municipal Court juvenile case manager Carolyn Johnson-Harris during the school day for discussions, games and activities to explore self-esteem, conflict resolution and communication, or other social and personal issues that that may be negatively affecting their home life and academic success.

 “I feel like young girls need this - they need a pivotable point in their life,” Johnson-Harris said. “This is very valuable for us because these young people now will be our leaders down the road. I don’t want to hear about another teenager that took another person’s life or [became] pregnant or any of those things. If we can talk to them about the things we deal with, it helps them, and they become better in the community.”

 Johnson-Harris first organized a high tea at the end of the 2022 school year as a reward for the GRACE girls and their academic and personal improvements. This year, she added a fashion show to the high tea, which students and parents attended April 22 at the Arlington ISD’s Professional Development Center.

 Weeks before the high tea, the GRACE girls took a field trip to We’re All About The Dress in North Richland Hills to purchase their gowns, shoes, jewelry and makeup for a small fee. The students smiled and laughed as they tried on armful after armful of colorful, sparkling gowns and modeled for their friends in front of the shop’s mirrors.

 “This gives them an opportunity to see themselves differently. What I have learned is a lot of them have body issues and they get to see themselves in a beautiful dress, maybe for the first time,” Johnson-Harris said. “Just looking at their faces when they see themselves in the mirror, that is amazing to me.”

 Mandie Rice, whose 7th grade daughter is in the program, was among parent volunteers who helped the girls search the dress shop racks for outfits that made them feel confident and empowered.

 “It’s not just coming and buying a fancy dress. There is a message behind it that I hope all the girls are able to get and use in the future,” Rice said. “Right now, they all feel like princesses. For most of them, this is probably the first time putting on a formal dress. It’s lifting them, and that’s the point.”

 Aigbefo said the dress shopping experience and the fashion show helped her get out of her comfort zone and put into practice some of the skills she had worked on during the school year.

 “I looked through everything to make sure I found the right dress that said, ‘That’s me,’” she said. My dad made it [to the fashion show] and he was so proud of me. It’s been a long time since he seen me dressed like that in heels and a dress. He complimented me a lot. We had a father daughter moment.”

 This year, Johnson-Harris also asked the girls to write down messages of affirmation that would be shared with their parents during the high tea.

 “I wanted the girls to speak for themselves. How do you feel about yourself? How do you describe yourself? That is where the cards of affirmation came from,” Johnson-Harris said.

 T.A. Howard 8th grader Heather Henderson’s affirmation was that she is “kind, smart, pretty and nice.” She said the GRACE program helped her “be a better person and to not look down on myself. I feel like Ms. Harris has taught a lot to me and other girls.”

 Rhyliee Jackson, a 7th grader at T.A. Howard, agreed. She said the skills she’s learned through the GRACE program have made school life “a little easier.”

 “She tells us not to be shy and to get out of your comfort zone. Be yourself and have fun,” Jackson said.

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