The sound of banging drums reverberates throughout the auditorium as lines of students in long-patterned skirts dance while stepping to the beat of their classmates’ rapid playing. This is African dance class at The Learning Tree Cultural Preparatory School.
The Learning Tree is a private cultural preparatory school in the Bronx established with a curriculum focused on helping black students find an area in which they excel, whether that’s in arts or academia, and serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The school teaches students everything from math to dance to sewing. Now, Learning Tree alumna and Gallatin senior A’nisa Megginson is donating the proceeds from her Stay Woke & Meditate retreat to her old elementary school.
“[There was a] big emphasis on wellness and self-esteem promoted at [The Learning Tree],” Megginson said. “I felt so safe and protected in that school and that’s something I didn’t necessarily get to experience until creating Stay Woke & Meditate.”
Megginson transferred to a public school after spending kindergarten through second grade at The Learning Tree and commented on how the difference in curriculum negatively affected her.
“What’s being taught in history courses around the black experience is beginning in slavery and then the general brushstroke that we have Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Obama,” Megginson said. “That’s just one example of the reductive depiction of the black experience.”
Megginson never forgot her experience at The Learning Tree and described that when she transferred to the public school system, she began to feel additional pressures as a black student.
“You hear about school being the vehicle of your liberation and your social mobility,” Megginson said. “But what is never revealed is how detrimental it can be to overwork yourself, especially when you’re coming from an underserved demographic.”
According to Megginson, this pressure can become detrimental to black students, making self-care especially necessary for students of color. Recognizing this, Megginson began Stay Woke & Meditate at NYU, a program for students of color to take time for themselves.
Principal and founder of The Learning Tree Lois Gregory says her upbringing in the Midwest under Jim Crow laws helped her craft a vision for the school.
“The crime was that I believed it,” Gregory said. “I really believed that I was inferior. To this day I feel unconfident, unaccomplished and I really don’t feel good about myself because that was embedded in me as a child, but I want other children not to ever have that feeling.”
The Learning Tree follows the New York State curriculum but infuses all of its lessons with accomplished black figures to inspire young black children.
“The children know that there are leaders, inventors and artists that were accomplished that look like them,” Gregory said. “You don’t have to say it, scream it, that makes it artificial. You just let them see all people and let them know that they are an integral part of a whole world.”
Megginson’s donation of the proceeds from the Stay Woke & Meditate retreat to The Learning Tree works toward filling a fundraising gap which prevented all eighth graders at the school from attending a trip to Brazil. Gregory emphasized the importance of the trip and how it contributes to The Learning Tree’s ability to maintain their students’ confidence in any environment.
“We find a way to give them every experience that everyone else can have,” Gregory said. “We know that if we don’t do it, they may not get that opportunity.”
A version of this article appears in the Monday, April 8, 2019, print edition. Email Emily Mason at [email protected]