PITTSFIELD >> For the eleventh consecutive year, the Women of Color Giving Circle of the Berkshires held a celebration event to recognize graduating high school seniors of African and African-American descent.
The event was held last Saturday, May 21, in the Susan B. Anthony Lounge of Berkshire Community College. This year's theme was "Hard Times, Strong Minds."
The event is always free for students and families to attend, along with any interested community members wishing to show their support.
"It's good for [people] to see how many students persevered all the years to get through school, and who are planning to go to college," said event coordinator Yvonne West of the Women of Color Giving Circle.
African-American, Hispanic, Native American and Pacific Islander students historically have experienced lower high school graduation rates than their white and Asian peers. While high school graduation rates have been rising since 2006 for students of all races, according to 2015 data from the state Department and Elementary and Secondary Education, 92.4 percent of Asian and 91.6 percent of white students graduated from high school in four years, compared with the 77.5 percent of African-American, 72.2 percent of Hispanic, 79.5 percent of Native American, and 83.8 percent of Pacific Islander students.
Similar achievement gaps existed in 2006. While 85 percent of white and 84 percent of Asian students graduated on time that year, only 64 percent of African-American, 57 percent of Hispanic, 70 percent of Native American and 50 percent of Pacific Islander students reached the same milestone.
There are myriad theories and research reports regarding why this is, but a biennial Berkshire County Youth Prevention Needs Assessment Survey regularly indicates community recognition as a strong protective factor in predicting student wellness and success.
So in recent years, the Women of Color Giving Circle has strategically developed student outreach initiatives for students of color to do its part in supporting students' successes.
This includes the Rites of Passage and Empowerment (ROPE) program for young women; holding multiple fundraising events to offer scholarships to high school graduates of color, and providing mentors and accomplished guest speakers to help inspire and motivate students at different school grade levels.
This year's speakers included Danica Chin and Jerome Edgerton Jr.
Chin is a University of Connecticut graduate who holds a chemical engineering degree and works as a process engineer with Bayer Material Science in Sheffield. In 2015, she was named a STEP Award Emerging Leader by The Manufacturing Institute, was also featured in the Spring 2015 issue of "Diversity Woman" Magazine.
Edgerton Jr., is a basketball coach at Pittsfield High School, a youth development specialist for the Brien Center, and is a 2015 New England Hall of Fame Regional Basketball inductee.
Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP, Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless, and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier were also in attendance and made remarks at the event.
The Women of Color Giving Circle for a second consecutive year also chose Berkshire Community College as the event venue, "because it's good for the students to see a college and think about their future," West said.
Of the 68 African-American students graduating from Berkshire County public high schools this spring, 24 attended last week's ceremony, with attendees each receiving a $75 stipend.
"Our main goals with this event each year is to honor them, congratulate them and give them incentives to go on to find a higher degree of education," said West. "We hope that they keep in touch and we encourage them to let us know if they ever need help because we're out there for them."
To learn more about the Women of Color Giving Circle, visit https://www.facebook.com/WOCGC. To donate to the annual scholarship fund, make checks payable to Women of Color Giving Circle Scholarship Fund, and send them to: P.O. Box 2322, Pittsfield, MA 01201.