As a graduate of Duke University and a safety for the St. Louis Rams, Matt Daniels knows the difference between being good and being great in both the classroom and on the field. When he took the stage at Webster Groves High School on Wednesday morning, he sought to inspire a group of students to accept the challenge of being great.
The students to whom Daniels was speaking had already accepted a challenge, the Webster Challenge, created to help close the achievement gap between African-American and Caucasian students. According to Dr. Jon Clark, Webster Groves High School principal, the goal of the initiative is to reduce the gap by 50 percent by the end of the year.
“The data shows we’re already halfway there,” Clark said. “The achievement gap doesn’t just exist at Webster Groves High School; it exists across the country.”
Started five years ago by a pair of Webster Groves seniors, the Webster Challenge Initiative is a student-driven program that is open to all and pushes participants to achieve academic excellence. It began modestly with 18 students, but has since grown to include more than 200 participants.
According to Clark, the Webster Groves School district has been working to reduce the achievement gap for the past 15 years. Community-based initiatives were implemented and parents and other mentors were encouraged to get involved. But with the Webster Challenge, students took their education into their own hands.
“I’m proud of the fact that we had students who came to me and said that we’ve got to get other kids involved,” Clark said. “We have all the outside support possible, but it’s got to be us as individuals deciding we’re going to make a difference.”
As part of the program, students set goals for themselves for the semester. Goals can range from bettering their grade point average, to recording perfect attendance, to participating in a new after-school activity.
“We help them try to set realistic goals, but also setting an individual plan for the student and what they have to do in order to be successful or meet that goal.”
Regardless of what they choose to achieve, the goals are in place to give the students something to strive for in their quest to improve academically.
“The students have to accept the promise that they’re going to do everything they can academically,” Clark said. “They’re going to get involved in school and they’re going to get their parents involved as well.”
On Wednesday, the participants in the Webster Challenge were honored at an award presentation. Those achieving certain GPAs were honored, as were those with spotless attendance records. Webster Groves called on Daniels to bring home the importance of striving for academic excellence.
In addition to challenging them to take the next step from good to great, Daniels spoke about his own academic journey and the role it had on his athletic endeavors. He explained how his desire to succeed resulted in educational and athletic opportunities at a variety of universities. Clark hopes that Daniels’ message will impact those in attendance, but also spread throughout the school.
“I’d like to change (the Webster Challenge) into a school-wide focus, where it’s open to all students who may not be meeting the goal they want to achieve by setting up more of an advisory-type group and opening it up across the school overall,” Clark said.