Teacher unites girls with after-school club

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published June 28, 2016

 Like a sports team, the girls would all put their hands together and exclaim, “Smart, strong, confident.”

Like a sports team, the girls would all put their hands together and exclaim, “Smart, strong, confident.”

Photo by Deb Jacques

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CLINTON TOWNSHIP — An outgoing sixth-grade class at Rainbow Elementary is living proof of girl power.

A group of 15 young girls at the Clinton Township school has become synonymous with the inception of an after-school club known as SSC, which stands for “Smart, Strong, Confident.”

The club is the brainchild of Casey Lipari, a substitute teacher at Rainbow — part of Clintondale Community Schools — who took her own adventurous path to reach her current place of satisfaction.

Lipari just completed her first year as a teacher, leaving a successful and long-term career in advertising to become a mentor to young women. Simultaneously taking graduate school classes at night while teaching in the mornings — and even serving as a lunch lady at one point — she made SSC a weekly tradition from 3 to 4 p.m. on Thursdays.

Growing up in a family immersed in education — including her sister, Rainbow Principal Cara Cottrell — Lipari was apprehensive to leave a “glamorous” career in which she traveled to Las Vegas on a whim on her company’s dime. She worked for the Food Network in the past, and most recently for Yahoo. 

One day, something clicked. She had an urge to want to instill confidence in children, realizing the importance of such an endeavor when comparing it to the advertising industry.

“Girls, in this day and age, we’re fighting for girls’ equality,” Lipari said. “I just wanted to ensure I was making a difference with girls and instilling confidence and inspiring them and giving them power.”

The SSC sessions were a lesson in exploring the world and themselves. The opportunities varied  each week, whether it was finding out what talents they didn’t know they had — such as singing or dancing — or putting on lipstick or eyeliner, or trying food from different cultures, or even learning the rules of basketball.

Lipari said the social relationships between the girls really were indicative of the success they had individually.

“I really think that an educator’s role is creating a bond with their students, and knowing what they want to accomplish and really taking care of them and knowing their goals,” she said.

Friendship in and out of the classroom wasn’t always a consistency with this particular group of girls. Actually, mudslinging and discontent led to visits to the principal’s office.

“They weren’t friends,” Cottrell said. “There was a lot of problems … gossip and bullying and rumor spreading. All that stuff that sixth-grade girls do. (And it went) down to nothing.”

As fifth-grade students, the girls had 36 instances related to lack of discipline. This past school year, that number dropped to zero.

The 2015-16 school year was the first in which Clintondale Community Schools moved sixth grade back to the elementary level. 

Sixth-grade teacher Lynn Carlson, who has taught for 25 years, said she has never seen a connection where young girls stick together and gain confidence and strength within themselves.

“They look out for each other. They have become each other’s biggest cheerleaders and best friends,” Carlson said. “When there’s an issue, they talk it out. It has cut down the drama in their classroom 100 percent.

“It brought all that out that they didn’t realize they had.”

With the school year ending, the girls gave their newest mentor a gift from the heart: a scrapbook complete with photos from the past school year, jokes and crafts.

Lipari, wiping her watery eyes with tissues, discussed the impact that the girls had on her own life and how she never imagined that kind of emotional attachment to a group of people.

“I think people have a natural gift for kids, and if you have it, you should be with them,” Lipari said. “They’ve made my year. It’s probably been the best year of my life with these girls.

“Quitting your job to become a teacher — so many people thought I was crazy. But they’ve made me so happy with my choice. I just hope more people know how much education (can impact lives), and how much young girls are powerful and smart and beautiful and strong … and the best.”

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