Welcome Back, Kotter was a popular TV series in the 1970s about a high school teacher who returned to work at his racially and ethnically diverse alma mater.

Something similar is happening this year in Des Moines Public Schools where a dynamic spoken word poetry program less than a decade old is expanding under the direction of an alum.

Leah Waughtal graduated from the University of Iowa last spring and was hired by DMPS to grow a program she helped establish when she was still a high school student. Her position is Movement 515 Coordinator, and she will direct M515’s expansion into the district’s middle schools.

Leah graduated from North High in 2014, one of the trailblazers of the Movement 515/RunDSM poetry workshop model developed by DMPS teachers Emily Lang and Kristopher Rollins. She was a standout on the first team Lang and Rollins took to the Brave New Voices (BNV) International Youth Poetry Festival in 2012. Since graduating from North, she’s come back every summer to coach subsequent DMPS squads.

Leah didn’t head off to college with this objective in mind. She majored in English and creative writing, not education.

“But a couple of summers ago when we were competing at BNV in Atlanta, I asked Rollins and Lang how involved I could get,” she said on the first day of school Thursday, while settling into workspace at Central Campus where she attended classes a few quick years ago. “They said, ‘How involved do you want to be?’”

The answer was wholeheartedly, professionally, indefinitely. Now she is.

“Leah gave RunDSM legs and spent her college career not only digging into herself as a writer/artist, but also mentoring youth across the state via the Iowa Youth Writing Project,” said Lang. “Since she graduated from North, she has been giving back. It makes perfect sense for her to move into a leadership role within RunDSM, a movement she has nurtured since its inception.”

“I was a sophomore at North when my dad told me about a video he saw from BNV. He thought it looked like something I would have interest in,” Leah said. “About the same time, I started seeing flyers in the hallways at school about the workshops that Rollins and Lang were starting.”

Back then, the teaching tandem was at Harding Middle School. Since then, they’ve moved to Central Campus where they designed and implemented a high school curriculum in Urban Leadership while continuing oversight of the burgeoning M515/RunDSM phenomenon they’d envisioned.

Torch passing is an apt characterization of what’s happening now. Fire is lighting up and warming up formerly dark, cold spaces in young people’s lives.

“Leah represents the first of many follow-throughs for the countless young people we’ve promised to continue uplifting and creating space for well beyond their time as students in RunDSM programs,” said Rollins. “Leah is the first domino to fall in our goal of keeping RunDSM in the hands of those directly impacted.”

Leah is not the only layer of scale-up. Program alums Brenda Vasquez, Victor Caldwell, Equinox, Miavliag Lee, Linda Brown, Davonte Binion and Jalesha Johnson are attached to district high schools and middle schools as part-time artists-in-residence. All of them were coached by Leah as members of district teams that competed at BNV, and some of them ARE majoring in education, at Drake and Iowa State.

There is much more to come besides extending the spoken word workshops and slam competitions into the middle school level.

“We are going to start publishing chapbooks created by our student-poets, right here at Central Campus,” according to Leah. “Sale proceeds will recycle back into our programming.”

Plans are also in the works to provide opportunities for students in sound engineering and recording through M515/RunDSM’s collaboration with the Des Moines Social Club.

Here’s some of what we had to say in the spring of 2013 after the slam competition that determined the DMPS squad for that summer’s BNV festival in Chicago:

Waughtal racked up nothing but 10’s in the final round and was crowned Grand Slam Champion. A junior, she is the oldest member of the team. The rest of the squad consists of two high school sophomores and three eighth-graders. Eighth graders! If this were a basketball team, the coaches would be drooling over a juggernaut in the making.

One of those 8th graders was Davonte Binion, by the way. He’s the artist in residence at Harding Middle School this year, where it all began.

Juggernaut, yeah, a “literal or metaphorical force regarded as…unstoppable.”

Sounds about right.

Welcome back, Waughtal.

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