Social distancing led to a car parade Sunday honoring Black students and some adults in the Sun Prairie School District, pushing an event out into the community so the light could shine even brighter on their achievements.
The parade showcased the recipients of the third annual Sun Prairie BEAM Awards, which is short for “Black Excellence Achievement Makers.”
Addison Bowie, a seventh-grader at Patrick Marsh Middle School and recipient of two awards, said she liked seeing her siblings’ teachers holding signs with the students’ names at the parade.
“I felt very proud because you know there were people congratulating me for what I did,” she said.
Marilyn Ruffin, founder of the awards program, said she wanted the Black students to feel welcomed by having the community come out for the parade. Her throat got dry during the parade because she was yelling out congratulations so much to the students in the passing cars.
“I got emotional. We had at least 100 cars that came through — to see their smiles ... It was really nice,” she said.
Montie Bowie was honored for his volunteerism in the schools, and all three of his children also received awards. Students and adults are chosen for the awards by teachers.
“It is different when people start to validate you for who you are ... It lets you know that teachers see my children,” Bowie said. “The reason we stay is we want to be an asset in a community that sees us as an asset.”
The awards were given during an in-person program at Sun Prairie High School the first year, and last year during the COVID-19 pandemic awards were sent by mail. Still not able to meet in person this year due to the continuing pandemic, the car parade was planned. Participants could tune in to a station to hear uplifting music as they drove.
“We often hear about negative behaviors or attitudes being assigned to our Black scholars in Sun Prairie, so the effort of this event is to challenge the narrative by ‘shining a beaming light’ on the positive examples of Black excellence and achievement in our community,” Ruffin said.
The event was started by Ruffin when she was serving on the Sun Prairie School Board and proposed the idea to the other members. She was the first Black person elected to any office in Sun Prairie when she joined the board in 2015. She served until last month.
Then she reached out to the Sun Prairie African American Parent Network, which joined forces with her, and the first BEAM Awards were presented in 2019. The event is still run by a committee.
Ruffin’s inspiration for the event came from raising two Black sons, Marlon and J.T., who graduated from Sun Prairie High School in 2015 and 2018.
Their GPAs hovered around 3.0, but that was not high enough to earn academic awards given out at the time, Ruffin said. Standing at 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7, her sons were recognized for their skills on the basketball court.
“But that is not good enough, and it is not enough, at least for myself, to strive for,” Ruffin said. “I want the community to see much more of our students.”
At the same time, Blacks would be in the news for crimes, achievement gaps and racial disparities, she said.
“We read so much negativity — who can feel good about that?” Ruffin said.
The event has evolved from the first year, when about 150 students and 50 adults were recognized. This year, the number of awards has grown to more than 500 distributed among 437 people, Ruffin said. Awards go to students and adults, including staff, leaders and parents or guardians. This year some of the recipients were parents who helped their children and others with online learning.
There are five categories for the awards: Models Excellence in Academics, Models Excellence in Teamwork, Models Excellence in Responsibility, Exemplary Peer Leadership and Extraordinary Growth. Not all Black students receive awards, which are designed for students to want to strive for them, Ruffin said.
“You want a child to be able to say, ‘I want to be on that stage next year,’” Ruffin said.
Nevaeh Eveans, an eight-grader at Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School, received the Models Excellence in Responsibility award.
“I felt accomplished and proud of myself. It has been a rough year just because of COVID,” she said.
Avery Bowie, a second-grader at Token Springs Elementary School, received her first award this year. It was for exemplary peer leadership, which was more of a challenge because she and her siblings have remained online learners even though her peers have returned to school.
Kellan “Kelz” Bowie, a fourth-grader at Token Springs and the middle child of Montie and Bridget Bowie, said he was excited to get his second award this year, for modeling excellence in academics.
Addison Bowie received awards for modeling excellence in teamwork and exemplary peer leadership, both as a shooting guard in basketball and a classmate. She said she helps other students because “everybody deserves to achieve.”
Sun Prairie High School sophomore Alexander Maggit was honored for modeling excellence in academics because his grades were mostly, if not all, A’s when he was chosen for the award. He found the award meaningful.
“It’s just really special because someone actually notices that I possess these talents,” he said.
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