Program Leads Students Through Personal Growth

The teenage years are undeniably challenging. But two Waukee CSD schools have a resource helping students be their best selves and reach their fullest potential.

“We focus on developing the whole person — not only academic learning,” Keith Mercer says. “I am committed to providing opportunities for students to excel academically and personally by learning to overcome barriers and obstacles.”

Keith Mercer, founder and director of Mercer Elite, offers classes once per week at South Middle School and Timberline School. Students decide if they want to dedicate time to personal growth in Mercer’s course, but counselors and school staff can recommend it. Recommendation or not, any student at the school is welcome to join.

“It’s a class that’s about you. So, you can talk about yourself without being judged,” South Middle School student Amaar Ally says.

Instructor meets with his class at Timberline School.

Mercer meets with his class at Timberline School.

“I decided to come to Mr. Mercer’s class each week because it’s always a motivation for me to get the week done,” says Mutaz Tameem, a student at Timberline School.

“Our motto is ‘We weren’t born to be average,’” Mercer says. “During our time together, students are empowered to believe in themselves, take initiative, and strive for excellence. I focus on fostering a positive and inclusive community where students can thrive inside and outside the classroom.”

Mercer’s Background Helps Him Connect to Students

Mercer grew up in Washington D.C., where he experienced racism, poverty, violence, and drugs.

“When I was growing up, getting an education came second to survival,” he recalls.

But Mercer took the initiative to change his path. He eventually went on to play college football at Nebraska — winning a Big 8 Championship (1993) and vying for the National Championship in the 1993 Orange Bowl.

After his education, Mercer moved to Iowa and began his career sharing strategies that helped him overcome obstacles. He works as a professional speaker, coach, and mentor. During his adult life, Mercer has helped hundreds of professional athletes, adults, and college students with his program. His background in D.C. helps him relate with people going through all sorts of difficulties.

Now, with two daughters in Waukee CSD schools, he focuses on helping students in the District. While he currently offers courses at South Middle School and Timberline, he has also mentored students at Northwest High School and Prairieview School.

Tackling Bullying in Schools

One of the many topics discussed in his groups is bullying.

“Addressing bullying is a significant aspect of my mission. We work with students to cultivate empathy, conflict resolution skills, and assertiveness techniques to combat bullying. We’ve seen notable successes in creating a safer and more supportive school environment,” Mercer says.

Mercer often employs a process called Restorative Circles.

“This process ensures everyone has a voice. We huddle up and discuss the exact issue that’s causing issues. The dialogue helps students learn from each other and understand each other’s perspectives,” Mercer says.

“I’ve learned it’s important not to bully people because we all come from different backgrounds, and everyone is different in their ways,” Tameem says.

Often, Mercer divided his students into groups based on gender during meeting times.

“This creates a more comfortable and focused environment for discussions and activities tailored to the unique experiences and challenges faced by each gender,” Mercer says.

“Both genders have different perspectives and need guidance in different ways,” Ally notes.

Instructor and student smiling with a certificate of achievement.

Mercer and Amaar Ally at South Middle School.

“We can be more comfortable and share our honest opinions without being laughed at or anything,” Tameem says.

The Impact Program Helps Keep Peace

Another way Mercer encourages connection is through his Impact Program, which enables each student to pick an impact person in the building. The impact person is an adult who the student can talk with for five minutes when anything goes wrong, including bullying.

“If you have someone you trust to talk to immediately, the issues can get resolved quickly. It’s when feelings linger and go unspoken when they become trouble,” Mercer says.

“My impact person — or people — are Mr. Mercer and my parents. I can always open up to them, and they can always help me. They also always motivate me,” Tameem says.

Why It’s Important to Build Up Your Students

Instructor and student holding certificate of achievement at Timberline School.

Mercer with Jordan McCaffrey-Morris at Timberline.

After finishing a school year with Mercer, they’ll get a certificate of completion. That means they’ve learned how to believe in themselves, what to do during adversity, and how to handle the difficult moments that inevitably come with life.

Mercer leaves one final thought for parents and guardians: “Talk with your students about their goals. Build them up. Show them that greatness is possible. By modeling belief in their children’s abilities and encouraging them to try new things, parents can help instill confidence and resilience.”