Problem solvers

Fifth grader Keren Chavez Santiago was inspired by a friend to make Sugar Creek a better place.

When that friend got into an argument with another student, Santiago helped calm her down, she said. That experience, and the desire to help reduce bullying, was what prompted her to join Sugar Creek’s Junior Equity Team.

Teacher Cassondra Lee started JET in 2015 when she was in her second year on the staff and was leading the school’s Equity Team.

“My idea was that JET would be an extension of the work I was doing with other teachers and getting the kid feedback,” she said. “After we no longer had the equity team, I just decided to keep going with it. I just really liked working with kids and having them identify issues and empower them.”

The JET group looks throughout the school to see where students and staff can do better to increase success and belonging for all students.

Projects are different every year, Lee said, but common themes show up between every class of fifth grade students. Recurring topics include friendships and bullying, Lee said.

The meetings, which are held once a month, have become a space where students can talk freely about problems they’re seeing or dealing with, Lee added.

“From all those feelings, we get to, ‘OK, now what?’” she said.

This month, students were working on creating morning announcements in both English and Spanish to broadcast to the entire school about kindness and reducing bullying. Other years, Lee said students have made bulletin boards and planned activities celebrating Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March.

JET is one of several student leadership teams at Sugar Creek known as CHAMPS. CHAMPS groups, which stands for CHAMPS Have And Model Positive Skills, provide fifth graders with an activity centered around volunteering or leadership.

Other CHAMPS groups include a student newspaper, Little Librarians, Safety Patrol Ambassadors, Playground Perfectionists and Improv Drama Group that have between six to eight students in them.

The CHAMPS options are run by fifth grade teachers and other staff in the building who have the availability to dedicate time to the groups.

Fifth grader Elivia Kerkenbush said she joined the group because she enjoys helping people and feels good about herself while doing it.

“If they’re dealing with a friend problem, this could help them stand up for themselves,” she said. “If they don’t know this (information), they could just get bullied for the rest of the year and think that’s OK.”

Because JET tends to be a smaller group of students, Lee said, students easily bond together over shared experiences and the drive to improve the school.

Lee enjoys watching the students become allies for one another, she added.

“They connect with each other really well, even if they’re not in the same class,” she said. “Watching them grow, and watching with their leadership skills blossom out of it, is really cool to see.”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.