Melissa G. Quintana, 2003 Comer Kids Leadership Academy

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In May 2011 Ariel and Silvia Quintana of Miami, Florida emailed Dr. Comer to let him know that their daughter, Melissa had won a full scholarship to the Yale University summer session through QuestBridge, a national organization that connects the nation's brightest under-served youth and leading higher education institutions. This would be Melissa's second summer experience at Yale: In 2003 she represented Banyan Elementary Schoo at the Comer Kids Leadership Academy, and her parents served as chaperones.

Melissa is in her senior year in the International Baccalaureate program at Coral Reef High Schooland is in the top 1% of her graduating class of 682 students. Her top choice for college is Yale University.

The Quintanas told Dr. Comer that the Comer Kids Leadership Academy (CKLA) had "exerted a strong motivational influence in Melissa's development as an academic and as a community leader. After meeting you and becoming familiar with your work, Melissa concluded that one's success can be measured in terms of how much and how many people's lives we can help improve and develop their potential."

Daniel Butler, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Yale political science department, wrote the following about Melissa: 

Melissa took my course - Political Economy of Representation in the U.S. - in the summer of 2011 and earned an A. The course focuses on how institutions such as primary elections, redistricting, campaign finance, early voting, multi-member districts, term limits, etc. affect the behavior of public officials. The major goal of the course is to help students learn about aspects of research design. 

For students who have not been formally trained in research methods within the social sciences, this class can be very difficult. I have now taught this course 6 times and I find that many of the students at Yale struggle with many of the elements of research design even though they are political science majors. Melissa put the work into the course to succeed. She was the only student in the course during the summer session who fully understood the elements of research design well enough to improve her own work and help others with their work. 

Melissa chose a more challenging topic for her research design project than the other students and still managed to produce the best proposal in the class. Melissa earned the best grade in the class and would compare favorably with the students I have had at Yale. 

The Impact of the Comer Kids Leadership Academy

While Melissa was in New Haven this summer Cynthia Savo, SDP's Communications Director, interviewed her about her participation in the Comer Kids Leadership Academy and the impact of those five days of what Dr. Comer calls "galvanizing experiences." She also visited with Dr. Comer in his office at the Yale Child Study Center. He was happy to hear about Melissa's many accomplishments. "Melissa is great example of what's possible when children develop well along all of the developmental pathways," said Dr. Comer.

Melissa and Comer Kids from 13 school districts around the country were organized into teams of 10-12. Two New Haven educators, Shelia Brantley and Deb Davis, were the adult leaders of Melissa's team. The Comer Kids met with Dr. Comer and learned about his life and his four decades of work to make schools great places for children and adolescents to develop and learn well so they can be successful in life.

"Dr. Comer was such a great inspiration to us," said Melissa. "He spoke to us about his guiding principles and the pillars that should guide our lives. He taught us that all of the interpersonal relationships and skills we learned that week were helping us grow on a number of levels, including our brains. It was so amazing that we were able to contextualize all of these amazing lessons and principles on how to build lasting friendships and relationships."

The Comer Kids visited a neuroscience laboratory at the Yale School of Medicine where they took turns holding a human brain. They met with New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. at City Hall and made a decision by consensus in the city's legislative chambers. They went on a scavenger hunt at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. They learned Proud to be a Comer Kid, Knowledge is Power, and other songs that they performed together at the closing awards ceremony at which Melissa received the Leadership Award, the highest honor bestowed on the student who contributed most during the Academy.

"We were so young but we were learning these things that were well beyond our maturity, and I think it gave it much more meaning and that much more lasting effect and power," said Melissa. "One of the great things about the Comer Kids Leadership Academy was that the Comer principles shaped my development and put me on the path that brought me back to Yale."  

When Melissa returned to Miami she wanted to share what she had learned at Yale. "I asked my Dad how I could present all the information, and he said, 'There's a program called PowerPoint, but I think it's a little too advanced for you.' I wasn't exactly happy with that evaluation of my computer skills so I brushed that aside and over a few weeks I learned how to use PowerPoint. I put together a presentation with the main lessons I got from the seminar. I put pictures in so that students would be able to see what I was talking about. It was very colorful and engaging for everyone who saw it. I think it was great."

To download a copy of Melissa's PowerPoint, click here.

When she returned to Banyan Elementary School as a 4th grader Melissa asked her principal, Carolyn McCalla, if she could show her PowerPoint to each of the K-5 classrooms and talk to the students about the Comer philosophy. Ms. McCalla encouraged Melissa to make her presentation to an assembly of all the staff and students at Banyan.

"At a very young age Melissa really understood what the Comer School Development Program philosophy was all about and what it took to be a Comer school and student," said McCalla. "I gave Melissa consent to do so with fair warning to the teachers. The teachers and staff were overwhelmed by her thorough understanding. Her peers were her fans and began to absorb the true meaning of the Comer concepts."

Ms. McCalla called Dr. Felicia Gil, the principal of another exemplary Comer school in Miami, to ask her if Melissa could show her PowerPoint and talk about her experiences at the Comer Kids Leadership Academy. Dr. Gil agreed and Melissa made her presentation to a capacity audience of students, staff, and parents at Charles R. Hadley Elementary School. Melissa also made presentations at E.W.F. Stirrup Elementary School and at a meeting of the principals of the Comer Schools in Miami-Dade County. When people visited Banyan to see an exemplary Comer school in operation, Melissa would show them her PowerPoint

"Melissa became the Lead Co-Facilitator for spreading the Comer philosophy among our students," said McCalla. Rose Infante, the assistant principal at Banyan at the time, said that "Melissa embodied the Comer philosophy and was able to present it well. She would always tell the students, 'You see, you can achieve no matter where your roots are growing.'"

"As her principal, I always thought that Melissa would one day be known for her greatness in making a mark in this world because she is driven to success. She certainly embodied what we wanted to achieve in a Comer School," said McCalla, who received the prestigious Patrick Francis Daly Memorial Award for Excellence in Education Leadership from Yale University in 1999 as did Dr. Gil.

Melissa said she felt comfortable and at ease making presentations with her PowerPoint. Melissa and her parents got involved with ENLACE program of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) and when she was in 5th grade, the Foundation asked her to speak at two of their national conferences, one in Miami and the other in New Mexico. "I felt happy and in my element. I like to share what I have learned from various experiences I have been fortunate to have. I would not have been able to discover that so fully had it not been for the Comer Kids Leadership Academy," said Melissa.

Melissa Quintana: Scientist and Environmentalist

In 8th grade Melissa's science project, "Mischievous Mercury" won best in fair in Miami-Dade County. She measured the effects of mercury pollution on the nitrogen levels in the soil of coffee plants she grew. Her statistically significant results demonstrated that mercury "stunts the development and growth of vegetation and ecosystems. Since plants and all vegetation are at the base of the food chain, mercury in the long run harms the animals and humans that consume them," said Melissa. "This study was close to my heart because I'm very pro green, and I want to conserve the beautiful world we have around us."

Melissa then competed in the state competition where she won first place in the chemistry category. From there she went to the Intel Science Talent Search in Atlanta. "That was a wonderful experience I'll never forget. Although I could not compete nationally because I was too young, I was able to share my experiment with scientists who had won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. They were impressed with my project. Being able to speak with them was a very impressive experience of a lifetime."

Melissa Quintana: Community Leader and Education Advocate

During the summer between 10th and 11th grade, with seven years of experience as a public speaker, Melissa started a program called Leaders Engaging in the Art of Public Speaking (LEAPS). She wanted to share her knowledge and skills with low-income elementary school students in her community. "I teach them public speaking, research skills, and the fundamentals of debate, skills that they might not have otherwise attained that will help them achieve an education and have a brighter future overall. That's the point of everything I do," said Melissa. LEAPS is funded by The Children's Trust in Miami.

Melissa conducts monthly seminars for Hispanic parents through another program she started called Paving the Road to Success. "I teach them about educational opportunities, scholarships, and how to support their children to get an education. I do these bilingually. I really enjoy doing everything and anything I can to get the word out that yes you can--sí, se puede--and to give individuals the tools they can use to get an education because in the end, education is the big equalizer."

Melissa is also the lead prosecutor in Teen Court, a juvenile justice diversion program in Miami-Dade County. "We try to veer underage individuals from a life of crime. These are kids who have been guilty of petty theft, small drug possession, and other misdemeanors. As a prosecutor I try to determine their punishment in real-life court cases. Afterwards I am able to talk with them and give them tips about how to lead a healthier and more positive lifestyle."

For the last four years Melissa has volunteered in the Public Relations department at a local hospital. She is also on the Coral Reef High School Student Council and is the secretary of the Debate Club.

Melissa's Recommendations for Student Success

Revive the Comer Kids Leadership Academy

The Comer Kids Leadership Academy would benefit so many people and is worth supporting. I was given this opportunity and I ran with it but even if it wasn't the exact magnitude, I was able to impart a little seed of a way to have better interpersonal skills with hundreds and hundreds of other students and that was just me. Can you just imagine how many kids in the greater Miami area alone would benefit if the Comer Kids Leadership Academy was reinstated? I think that this is something that is really worth investing in.

I'm from a very modest income family. We've been on food stamps for part of our lives. We live in a small apartment in a challenging neighborhood and being able to see these things that are usually associated with the higher social strata and to think that this is available to me too is just something beyond comparison. Something that if lower income students from all races were given the opportunity to come visit this campus and see everything that it had to offer would just give them this incredible advantage that they may otherwise never have.  

Expose Children to Colleges at a Young Age

Being on the Yale University campus at age 9 was something so momentous and so magical even though I could not fathom what Yale or college was. The Comer Kids Leadership Academy facilitated and enabled me to set high goals. I left New Haven wanting to work hard and to help people. I want to get to Yale myself and help others get here, too. It gave me a spark that just lit me like a firecracker. I want this and I'm going to do everything I can to get here. That attitude would benefit hundreds and hundreds of students in so many ways.

Teach the Comer Kids Songs

The songs we learned at the Comer Kids Leadership Academy had a great impact on me. Songs like Knowledge is Power are self-empowering. Hearing these songs and singing them with other kids was great. These were important messages that we internalized: Knowledge is power. The sky's the limit. There is no mountain too high that you can't climb.

The sky's the limit for Melissa. We hope that next year she is just a few blocks away studying at Yale University where her path to higher education began.