Damoni Kpana and Amelia Larkey are scheduled to go to Ron Clark’s Amazing Shake Nationals in Atlanta.

Hannah Rudder has always thought of students at Dogwood Elementary School as amazing, but now two of them get to prove that they have “amazing shakes.”

Rising fifth-graders Damoni Kpana and Amelia Larkey will go to Ron Clark’s Amazing Shake Nationals at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta in February thanks to a successful fundraising campaign on DonorsChoose.org, a crowd-funding site that raises money for classroom projects. Rudder announced the “amazing news” this week on Facebook.

While attending professional-development workshops at the academy last year, Rudder and two colleagues found out about the Amazing Shake program, which teaches students communication skills, manners, etiquette and professional conduct. At the start of the 2016-17 school year, Rudder and Sarah Kee started the Dogwood Ambassadors, a group of 30 students selected through an application process that also takes into consideration grades and behavior.

“We saw an increase in class participation and grades of our students, and we saw a decrease in our behavior problems,” says Rudder. “Overall it has started a very positive climate change at Dogwood. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but this year we’ve got even more ideas to implement.”

Rudder, who has been at Dogwood for seven years, teaches third grade, but the ambassador program is for fourth- and fifth-graders only. The group met after school each Monday to work on Amazing Shake skills, culminating in an Amazing Shake competition.

All 30 students participated in the first round, which was judged by Dogwood teachers and administrators. The top five students went on to round two, where they were judged by representatives from Mayor Madeline Rogero’s office, Leadership Knoxville, WATE and other prominent community members.

Damoni won the competition, and Amelia placed second. Rudder says the girls were thrilled to win out over fifth-graders.

Damoni Kpana and Hannah Rudder take a selfie at the WATE studios.

Damoni and Rudder were invited to do a live interview on WATE, and this summer Damoni opened a Leadership Knoxville board meeting.

At the nationals in February, students will perform in case-scenario situations at the academy and throughout Atlanta, demonstrating their speaking skills, composure, handshake, ability to work a room and etiquette. Those who do not advance to the next levels will attend workshops to help them hone their skills.

Rudder submitted a proposal to fund the project to DonorsChoose, which posted it in June. She received some donations in May, before they were official, so they met their goal of $1,200 in about two months.

“It was incredible,” she says.

“Most of our students are on free and reduced lunch, so it’s hard for them to have extra income to afford something like this.”

Rudder says feedback from parents about the Dogwood Ambassadors program has been extremely positive.

“Most of the parents that we’ve talked to have told us how seriously their students take the ambassador program and how they’ve seen a difference in their academics. They have to (uphold) certain grades to stay in the program. They’ve noticed that it helps them to take school more seriously and work hard to keep their grades up.

“Parents really like to see their children learning those communication skills as well. It gives them a group, a community to be a part of. They are the leaders in our school. Other students look up to them.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Rudder says, they received many more applications than they did the first year.

“I wish we could take more than 30, but with funding and staff we can only take 30 ambassadors as of now.”

Rudder says the ambassador program is “something that we’re very proud of and we’re excited to see how big it can grow. We’ve already seen changes in a positive way. It’s making Dogwood even better than it already was.”

The Dogwood Ambassadors are ready for their field trip to the federal courthouse.

Written by Betsy Pickle
South Knox betsypickle@yahoo.com 865-405-3512