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They're the Brown Girls: RWHS club is like a family

Pictured here (from left): sophomore Aaliyah Mitchell, junior Tori Hansen, High School Counselor Heidi Raasch, junior Unique Miller, senior Mya Calhoun, senior Gabby Magill, junior Chardonnay Terry, and High School Teacher Sheena Tisland. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 4
Red Wing High School junior Unique Miller, sophomore Aaliyah Mitchell, senior Mya Calhoun hang out at the Brown Girls Group. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 4
Red Wing senior Gabby Magill has been a part of the Brown Girls Group since it's inception a year-and-a-half ago. Magill plans on attending Dakota County Technical College for welding next fall. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 4
Red Wing High School junior Tori Hansen has been a member of the Brown Girls Group at the school since it started. Next year, Hansen, along with her classmate and fellow group member Unique Miller will be enrolled in post-secondary education courses. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia 4 / 4

Once a week at Red Wing High School, an especially loud and excited commotion arises from Sheena Tisland's classroom.

This is where the Brown Girls Group, as members affectionately call it, meet to distress and enjoy the company of students who are similar to themselves.

The group began meeting a year-and-a-half ago when Student Counselor Heidi Raasch had the idea and presented it to a former student she considered capable of leading the concept to creation.

RWHS had several clubs or outreaches developed specifically for ethnic minorities in the school, such as the Native American and Hispanic students for examples, and an all-girls club for colored students was next in line to be developed.

That student has since graduated, but the club continues to grow with Raasch and Tisland as faculty leaders.

As the academic wraps up, there is a core group of girls who meet consistently during the school day's advisory period.

This small number of students is the perfect size for what the meetings were intended to be; a place to foster growth and strengthen relationships.

When the group was created, the girls would participate in activities, but fluctuating attendance made planning difficult.

The Brown Girls Group isn't like any other club in the high school, junior Tori Hansen said.

"It's not really like a club, I guess, it's really a family," Hansen said. "This is a time where we can be ourselves ... let stuff off of our chest."

These conversations are lively as the girls are loud and energetic, showing how comfortable everyone is in that environment.

Senior Mya Calhoun said she has felt more relaxed while at school since the inception of the group. The group is one of her "comfort spots" and gives her a "space to get away" from everyday school life.

The girls look at Tisland and Raasch as mentors,

with Hansen even going as far to say her academic career may have been in jeopardy without them.

"If we didn't have those two ... we'd probably be failing," Hansen said.

Tisland is a crucial part of the group and students find her attention invaluable.

"To know that we have a colored teacher involved in the group, it's like she's able to relate to what we're going through," junior Chardonnay Terry said.

Raasch, the counselor, is jokingly called "Mom."

Even though the atmosphere is relaxed, this "family" still has goals. Improvements in grades and class attendance are the main objectives as the girls prepare for the future. They even had a swear jar once, but that didn't last long.

Senior Gabby Magill acknowledged how helpful these targets are as she gets ready to attend Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount this fall.

"Not a lot of us like going to class, at all," Magill said. "If we can not go (to class) and we can get away with it, we're not going to go. In college, you can't do that."

Hansen and junior Unique Miller will be doing full-time, post-secondary enrollment options next year, a program that will allow them to start college classes early for high school credit.

"I would never think I was ever going to do something like that, and now I am," said Hansen.

The group focuses on more than just academic growth but also provides students with a safe space to process their emotions.

"One of our main goals was to not react to what everyone says to us," Terry said. "I got an attitude ... when people like say stuff, I like get very mad or offended, especially with a racist comment."

It is not just the students who are benefitting from the relationships. Raasch said that these girls are "the highlight of her day."

To see actual growth in multiple areas in these girls is monumental, according to Tisland. Usually, Tisland doesn't always get the chance to see students display this sort of growth after a year of time spent with them.

"As a teacher I deal with kids all the time who I never get to see actually grow," Tisland said. "I have them for a year and then I start over. It's so nice to actually be able to look at these women and see 'oh my gosh' there's growth. And not only growth in their maturity but connection and all those things I hope for as a teacher."

Despite some girls leaving because of graduation or moving to another school, Tisland believes they will always keep their strong connection.

"Anytime we are upset or mad or anything we know that we can go to Tisland or Raasch and they'll instantly be there to calm us down and help us through whatever's going on," Magill said.

These mentors have provided the girls with a corner of the world where they relax and talk freely. It may have come as a surprise for them that the place where they can most be themselves, no matter how expressive and loud, is within the halls of their own high school.