by Ari Robin McKenna
When Drew Campbell was in middle school in the Renton Highlands, he’d often watch recess alone from inside the classroom while all his peers played outside. After they lined up and came back into the building, he was allowed out into the schoolyard for his turn, wondering, “Would I ever be able to interact with the regular kids?” In the large, mostly empty classroom where he spent the rest of the day with two other students — each with their own Individual Education Plan (IEP) — posters mostly covered the windows to shield the three of them from being made fun of. When learning, they were separated by cubicle walls — not unlike those recently used to deter COVID-19 transmission — only they weren’t transparent. The isolation that Campbell felt, and the bullying he faced daily from peers after being excluded from their midst by adults after an ADHD diagnosis, is something he will never forget.
Yet born from this traumatic three years of his life was a desire to hone in on what students with a lot of energy — especially Black boys — need to be able to learn with enthusiasm and purpose. Though the public education system may have tried to fail Campbell, he learned from his experience a critique containing answers to questions now being asked publicly: How can we end the school-to-prison pipeline? How can we stop failing to engage Black boys? How can we make public education more inclusive?
Campbell, now 29, has long since poised himself to be a part of the solution and has recently started a company called Shine Kinesthetics. After obtaining a bachelors in psychology and a minor in social work from the historically Black college Fort Valley State on a full ride, as well as a master’s in business administration from City University with an emphasis on technology management, he has collected a host of experience working with and inspiring youth. Though his football career led him from the edge of trouble on the streets of South Seattle to the gilded doorway of the NFL, Campbell has turned heads not for his combine times or vertical leap, but for his ability to connect with and spur enthusiasm for learning in Youth of Color. Mentors have sought him out and he’s eager to continue growing as an educator.
Rhonda Claytor, who was the principal of Leschi Elementary School when she heard about Campbell from Ericka Pollard — then lead teacher at Leschi and currently the assistant principal of Franklin High School. Claytor watched as Campbell quickly began to distinguish himself as a Special Education Instructional Assistant (IA). “You could just tell that he’s got answers; he has gifts and skills. It does come pretty naturally to him too; he relates to kids, and to adults.” Witnessing what were Cambell’s first steps away from a football career, Claytor remembers how she immediately tried to convince Campbell he should become a principal, and how even during his first weeks he went the extra mile to problem solve for students. She remembers a particular student who would consistently have “rough afternoons … and just kind of lose his mind.” Just a few days after arriving at Leschi, Campbell was able to connect with this student in a genuine way, and he quickly found out this student was “running out of gas” because he “didn’t like anything for lunch.” Claytor remembers being moved when Campbell began to cook the student’s favorite foods and bring them in for him to eat. She sees this as indicative of how he shows up for students, saying, “So that’s the kind of stuff [Campbell did]. He just got to know kids as individuals and then set them up for success.”
Campbell has since continued to rack up an array of experiences working with youth. He worked at Kimball Elementary School as an IA, was a program manager for the Seattle Parks Department, lead a class at the “Art of the Athlete” University of Oregon summer program at the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club, and was hired by South King County Discipline Coalition to give Teen Talks — which began to draw crowds. He has also continued working with Skyway Youth as a project manager for the Somali Parents Education Board (SPEB), and has flourished with the Academy for Creating Excellence (ACE) in multiple settings, both virtually and in the Lake Washington School District.
An innovative organization, ACE generates an individualized learning plan for each of the underserved boys and young men in its programs, while teaching a “culturally aware” curriculum in ways that are “best teaching practice” for their students. Yet they also are intentional about developing their educators and are involved in generating strategies for helping schools retain Black teachers. For example, they offer the well-attended Black Educators Cafe, and, as ACE co-founder Marcus Harden says, “We want to model the way … we view teachers, educators as artists.” When Harden heard about Campbell and watched a few videos of him interacting with youth, he recruited him. “If you’ve met Drew, he is energy personified. He’s not a person that you forget. Energy is his value-add; he lights up a room.” Harden says, “I would be negligent to not get this guy on our team.”
Campbell says he benefited greatly from the license and agency he’s been given by ACE — even within their rich curriculum framework. He appreciates having mentors such as Anthony Washington, an ACE curriculum developer and Social Emotional Learning teacher at Garfield High School, who — oddly enough — realized while interviewing Campbell that he had once pulled a much younger Campbell aside when he was losing his cool on the basketball court. Both of them ended up tearing up in that interview, because for Campbell the memory of Washington — who is 6’10” and played professional basketball — being able to get through to him and connect with him even while he was angry was a novel experience at that tumultuous time of his life. Washington also held on to that memory as Campbell made a strong impression on him back then, and continues to as his mentee. Washington notes, “His ability to get students to engage is remarkable. He has a tremendously bright future in education!” Asked why he thinks Campbell’s students respond so well to him, Harden says he’s like Washington in this way, “We (ACE) call it the kinsman educator. He sees a little bit of himself in every student he serves.” About Campbell he goes on to say, “He’s just hyper personable. I think because he authentically shares his story, he’s vulnerable, and I think he’s also very open about his life lessons.”
While still working with ACE and SPEB, Campbell has begun his own company called Shine Kinesthetics, which serves South End youth ages 8–18. Yet no matter where Campbell works with youth, he knows it’s important for him to speak about his journey to kids that look like him. Here’s one version:
“In my youth I had issues focusing on learning topics when I wasn’t in the mood and at some points this was exacerbated by different transitions. Sometimes my emotions would become explosive when I felt unsupported.
“At the age of 9 I was diagnosed with ADHD. I was so confused by what that actually meant. Children and teachers called me ‘special,’ but I knew l didn’t feel special in the way that felt good. I had an over-abundance of energy that just needed to be channeled in the right way.
“I had so much energy it was hard for teachers and my parents to keep up with me. My parents had to find a healthy outlet for me to release all the energy I had, and football was that outlet for me. Football let me be free and express myself the way I wanted to. Not only was I able to release all the energy I had, I was learning life skills and lessons in the process.
“I have taken all my personal life lessons and experiences and turned them into a way to teach others, I have developed a curriculum that teaches you a different way to process information. Traditional learning is not for everyone and some of us need to be stimulated in different ways in order to get our brain going; this does not make you any less capable of learning or retaining information. In fact, 37% of students are kinesthetic learners: They learn by doing, exploring and discovering, and these students often work better being taught instead of told.”
Campbell has designed Shine Kinesthetics to enhance education with movement and activity, responsiveness to his individual students’ needs, a culturally appropriate curriculum, and the building of genuine connection with each of his students. When the moment is right, Campbell speaks to his students earnestly about the many challenges he’s faced, living on the street while a teenager, failing out of University of Idaho before transferring to Fort Valley State, and choosing to be an educator instead of continuing to pursue football. And he also listens — Campbell makes sure students feel comfortable, getting them to identify their own mood, what they’re passionate about, their learning needs.
While looking for a 2,000-square-foot space to house an early learning center and an after-school program for 11–18 year olds somewhere between Renton and the Central District, Campbell is offering a summer sampler of the Shine Kinesthetic learning experience this summer on Thursdays, July 15, 22, 29, and August 5. He’s offering to pay youth ages 10–18 $25 per session out of pocket to show up. Campbell is not at all worried about the summer sampler filling up, nor is he worried about drumming up interest for his future school. He says, “Shine Kinesthetics is a place where they can be themselves. They’re gonna tell a friend, to tell a friend, to come get their Shine on.”
When Campbell thinks back on his traumatic middle school experience in the Renton Highlands, he no longer feels bitterness and even has kind words for some of the classroom teachers who worked with him there. Seemingly all that’s left of those memories is a sense of purpose — thoughts of students currently in a similar situation, unnecessarily. Campbell waxes poetic when he’s done thinking of his past, and says, with characteristic zeal: “Pain creates the best art. If there’s pain in your story, share it!”
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.
Pharaoh Prim is an artist who is dedicated to showing the side of Seattle not broadcasted. He is a photographer, a painter, and a musician looking to show the world what South Seattle can accomplish.
📸 Featured image by Pharoah Prim.
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