44 attend leadership conference

Santino Deng and Ojoye Akane are making strides in Austin Public Schools this year.

The Sudanese success coaches are reaching across nationalities to encourage black students of all walks of life to succeed past high school.

That’s why Akane and Deng took 44 Austin and Albert Lea students to the 36th Pan African Student Leadership Conference at Minnesota State University, Mankato last Friday.

“This is a good first step in the right direction,” Akane said.

Akane got the idea to bring students after coming to Austin in November. He has attended the past seven conferences and didn’t see much of an Austin presence.

That’s why he and Deng approached district officials to bring students to Mankato. Though the high school and middle school students would stand out in a college conference, these students would meet black scholars and students alike.

“It’s a way to inspire them to think beyond what they know,” Akane said.

Students attended several sessions, including black youths’ fight against drugs and college access, before meeting state senator Jeff Haynes, DFL-Minneapolis, who spoke to students for about five to 10 minutes.

“It was pretty cool,” said Deng Deng, a Pacelli Catholic School eighth-grader who wants to become a doctor. Deng, the son Santino Deng, enjoyed the conference, especially meeting students and scholars at a large college campus. He wasn’t the only student to gain something from the experience, however.

“A lot of people said [afterward] they wanted to work harder to get into college,” he said.

The Pan African conference is the first of several initiatives Akane and Santino put in motion to help bridge the gap between families and school staff. The duo held an African parents’ meeting at Banfield Elementary last month, and plan to hold monthly meetings at each Austin school. In addition, the two plan to connect more with parents.

“Parents need to know they have access to see what’s going on,” Santino said.

Above all, Santino and Akane plan on strengthening ties between African families and the community at large.

“We want our kids to be the best in this community,” Akane said. “We want to raise good citizens in this community. We are here because of this community.”

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