• ‘Salute’ to foundation builders

    St. Louis American

    By Rebecca S. Rivas|

    Educators Kynedra Ogunnaike and Dana M. Watts are both building a foundation for underserved children to succeed – at two different age levels.


    On Friday, September 14, Ogunnaike will receive the SEMO Counselor of the Year award at the St. Louis American Foundation’s 2012 Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship & Awards Gala. Watts will receive the 2012 PNC Early Childhood Education Award. The black-tie event will be held at 7 p.m. at the America’s Center Ballroom, following a reception at 6 p.m.

    Family partnership

    Dana Watts, center coordinator for Urban League Head Start, was studying social work when she first began working at an early childhood center for her practicum requirement.

    “I would go home every night, and I would light up when I talked up about the children,” Watts said. “My husband said, ‘It’s almost like you have a gift working with those kids, they really respond to you.’”

    With his encouragement, she went back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in child development from Central Methodist University. She’s been an early childhood educator now for more than 20 years. The one thing she loves about the Urban League Head Start program is its attention to family – the reason she was originally interested in social work.

    “Here at the Urban League Head Start, we truly believe in the child-parent-educator partnership. It’s a collaboration. We work together to make sure every child is ready for kindergarten,” she said.

    “I truly feel that early childhood is an important piece in every child’s life because it is that foundation and that basis on which all other education occurs and is built on.”

    At the Urban League, Watts started off as a teacher, and then became a lead teacher and a then master teacher. Now as the center coordinator, she gets to coordinate all the program’s components, including the management team, the nutritionists, psychologists and teachers.

    “I am working with the groups together to empower families,” Watts said. “In this position, I am living out the dream I’ve always wanted. Not only being an educator, but also working with that family component.”

    Counseling torchbearer

    Kynedra Ogunnaike, a guidance counselor at Vashon High School, has been in the St. Louis Public School District for 16 years. But her family legacy in school counseling goes back much further.

    “My passion for counseling came as a direct result from being around my mom, who was a guidance counselor in the district as well for over 36 years,” she said. “I think of it as a selfish occupation. I give so much, but I get so much in return.”

    Like her mother, Ogunnaike almost always has a child at her house. Some days, her students may need hair assistance. Other days, she is driving a student’s grandmother to the Social Security office to get some things squared away.  

    “Watching my mom, I would come home and people from her school would always be there,” Ogunnaike said. “She instilled that in me and that’s what I do.”

    Ogunnaike received a master’s degree in education from University of Missouri – St. Louis and another master’s from Lesley University in education technology. She is working on a doctorate degree in education technology as well, and is excited by the role that technology can potentially play in the mental health.

    “From working here with students, I realize that it’s the way to really capture them,” she said. “It’s a way to key into the students. A lot of times students will not come out and say things. They will email you, especially the ones that normally wouldn’t say anything. They will use technology.”

    She does not recommend for students to use site such as Facebook as a way to work through their issues because it attaches a face to them. Her ideal use of technology and counseling for young people would be sites that give encouragement and would allow users to share anonymously in monitored, small online groups. However, she has not found any sites she would recommend to her students yet. Instead, she offers them a bit of caution.

    “The most important thing I’ve learned is trying to get students to realize that once you put it out in cyberspace,” she said, “you cannot get it back.”