- Associated Press - Saturday, July 26, 2014

WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) - “Society doesn’t see me, ‘cause I’ve got more to me than meets the eye. I won’t lie. I won’t cry. I’ve got dreams that reach beyond the sky.”

The chorus for the song “Society Doesn’t See Me” was written, recorded and performed by the students of the North End Leadership Academy, an eight-week enrichment program for African-American youths that aims to improve literacy, math, artistic and professional skills.

Fifteen-year-old Teion Sales said the track “started with a brainstorm, and then everyone gave it their all.”

Since June 16, students from elementary to high school age have spent their time at the Neighborhood Hub at Mount Carmel Baptist Church learning critical skills through the creation of hip-hop songs and performances.

Program coordinator Cheryl Faries always dreamed of creating a school similar to that of the Mississippi Freedom Schools, which focused on developing an academic curriculum based on personal experiences of the students.

“There are so many people seeing these kids as “bad,” but they’re not putting out opportunity for them,” she said. “Since they’ve started, their literacy and math, along with their performance skills, have all increased.”

Al Hays, retired University of Northern Iowa professor and volunteer with the Hub, hopes to encourage an educational environment that doesn’t alienate students and emphasizes cultural positivity.

“African-American kids get so many negative messages about themselves,” he said. “Using hip-hop lets them connect with their culture and they can embrace it that way.”

Literacy instructor Shuaib Meacham, associate professor within the College of Education at UNI, has helped mold the program based on a similar program he helped establish at the University of Delaware, where he was an associate professor of literacy and multicultural education.

“We’re trying to establish a purpose for literacy,” he said. “Young people in general don’t often get a chance to share how they feel about things in a more authentic way, using hip-hop as a medium and an art-form.”

Meacham utilizes African-American figures like Malcolm X, Tupac Shakur, and LeBron James by identifying similar factors that the kids share with the cultural icons and then emphasizes the educational components of their lives.

So where does hip-hop come in?

“I’ve found that the invitation to record is something that intrigues them,” Meacham said. “People aren’t aware that these kids can really articulate serious issues.”

Eleven-year-old Keon Campbell helped write “Society Doesn’t See Me.”

“I think it all comes back to literacy,” he said. “The more words you know, the wider range you have, the more meaning it has.”

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