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Published in Print: June 25, 1997, as Diversity 101

Diversity 101

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At lunchtime, students still separate themselves by race, class, and gender.

Atherton, Calif.

It's lunchtime at Menlo-Atherton High School, and everyone is in place.

Out in the parking lot, black and Hispanic upperclassmen congregate at their cars, parked closest to Middlefield Road. Next to them--in a progression as unchangeable as the clear, sunny weather--come Asians, then white juniors, then white seniors. Off to the other side are the "stoners," with black T-shirts and matching eye makeup.

Younger kids also segregate in predetermined spots. Black and Latino freshmen and sophomores, and some older students who don't have cars, hang out in front of the school or on the basketball courts out back. Polynesians sit in the shade of an open-air corridor. Whites gather on the grassy area between buildings known as The Green. The crowd at The Patio, a cracked and pitted blacktop dotted with picnic tables, is primarily Latino and Polynesian, although the lure of nearby soda machines mixes things up a bit.

This unwritten social code doesn't escape anyone's notice. It's visible, daily proof of the wide gulf that separates the school's 1,800 students. They hail from Atherton, one of the wealthiest communities in the state; Palo Alto, the home of Stanford University; and affluent Menlo Park. They also cross a catwalk over Highway 101--the dividing line between rich and poor--from struggling East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park.

Over the years, Menlo-Atherton, a 33-acre campus of 1950s-vintage buildings, has become a microcosm of the state itself: 37 percent white, 36 percent Latino, 16 percent African-American, 6 percent Pacific Islander/Filipino, 4 percent Asian-American, and 0.2 percent American Indian.

The division among the students isn't just due to race and ethnicity. The teenagers tend to congregate with friends from their elementary and middle schools--many of which were as homogeneous as the high school is diverse. In these cocoons, reinforced by tracked classes, many moved through "M-A," as the community calls the high school, without even meeting all of the members of their graduating class.

Until, that is, the Class of 1997 arrived.

Four years ago, a handful of determined freshmen parents and a sympathetic vice principal agreed to try to bring students together. Their goals were modest, yet radical: to create a feeling of unity among the members of the incoming class, to help the youths get along with a diverse mix of people, and to help parents and faculty members take a more open-minded approach to students' capabilities and potential.

Now, the 280 graduates of the Class of 1997 are preparing to go their separate ways--to work, junior colleges, and prestigious universities. In trying to overcome racial barriers, they and their parents have endured hard feelings, tears, humiliation, and anger. But they have also managed to forge a sense of togetherness. If that just means some students say "Hi" or "What's up?" to a wider range of peers in the breezeways, or feel less intimidated walking around the school grounds, it's a start.

Even on the cusp of the 21st century, what these new graduates will remember of their high school years is reassuringly familiar: homecoming pranks, fund-raising fashion shows, spontaneous barbecues, and dances. What is different, though, is that these rites of passage included students of many backgrounds and skin colors--no small feat for what Principal Eric Hartwig calls a "bipolar school."

Kim Cooper won't forget her senior homecoming dance. It seemed destined to end on a down note when her date left early. Then, Saimone Nai, a student of Tongan heritage who later left M-A, spotted her across the room and asked her for the last dance. "It made my homecoming," says Cooper, who had thrown herself heart and soul into the diversity efforts. "He gave me a kiss on the cheek."

Without the parent-sponsored diversity programs, says Kim, who is white, she might have missed that special moment. "It sounds so silly," she confides, "but I don't know if I would have been open to thinking he's good looking."

The 50-odd parents who formed the Class of 1997 Network are no ordinary bunch. The most active members--nearly all of whom are white professional women--made deliberate decisions to send their children to Menlo-Atherton rather than to private schools. They viewed diversity as a strength and wanted all students to benefit from it. And they were confident and assertive enough to keep pressing their vision.

White boys tailgate in the parking lot, Hispanic girls chat on The Patio, Asian girls gather by a pickup, and black youths congregate in a breezeway.

In 1993, Anne Leahy Jones, the mother of an incoming freshman, and two other parents met with Vice Principal Gerald Guess. They explained that they'd been working together at a middle school and wanted to continue a parent network at M-A, drawing in representatives of the entire school community. The new network's focus crystallized soon after, when the parents learned that the district planned diversity training for a select group of freshmen in danger of failing.

To Leahy Jones and others, the plan seemed shortsighted. Wouldn't all students benefit from some attention to race and class? "This is an issue we all deal with all of the time, in life and in work," Leahy Jones says. "If I can't talk about it, and you can't, how can we expect our kids to talk about it and work on it?"

In Guess, a 55-year-old African-American who had been at the school for 18 years, the parents found a key ally. Guess, a deacon at his church, had watched M-A's Hispanic population soar from 50 to 500 students, while Californians blamed immigrants for their woes. And he had chastised Polynesian and Latino students for calling each other "nigger," a street term of familiarity for students that, for Guess, opened old wounds.

The first year, the network parents got on the phone and drummed up more than $5,000 from Class of 1997 families and established parent groups at the school. They sponsored an assembly on diversity, hosted an international dessert night, and chaperoned the school's first nighttime dance in years.

Because of security concerns, the inexpensive get-togethers had fallen by the wayside. Emotions can get hot. In 1991, M-A students got into a fight that the Atherton police labeled a race riot, although people here argue about whether it really was. This spring, a fight broke out between African-American and Pacific Islander students, capturing headlines and provoking more debate about race relations. In between have been other scuffles.

In its second year, the network hit on the idea of providing "leadership-development training"--led in part by students themselves--to a broad group of teens as a tangible and positive way to build class unity and respect. Parents also surveyed students and found that they wanted something almost heartbreakingly simple: to know each other. The network selected the California Association of Student Councils to provide the training and raised $40,000 from local foundations to pay for it.

'If I can't talk about [race and class], and you can't , how can we expect our kids to talk about it and work on it?'

Anne Leahy Jones

Things really got rolling as the Class of 1997 entered its junior year. Forty students representing all walks of school life received eight hours of training over two days to be discussion leaders for their peers. After first-semester finals, the entire class took part in an outdoor high-ropes challenge course, assisted by another 18 students who were trained to lead them. The next month, students left campus for a two-day workshop with student-led discussions in small groups, motivational speakers, and a documentary on racism. At the end, the juniors made plans for improving the climate at their school.

The activities weren't just for teenagers. More than 40 parents and teachers also participated, putting aside their roles as authority figures to see the world on a par with students.

This year, senior class leaders helped induct freshmen into Menlo-Atherton's rules and traditions through a structured program that the student council association recommended. It was a far cry from their tradition of hazing the younger students and another step toward making the school a nicer place to be.

But the real turning point for parents, signaling that Menlo-Atherton was a multicultural school and proud of it, came when the Class of 1997 Network got its chance to plan the annual fall fashion show.

The fund-raiser had traditionally been the responsibility of "Atherton mothers." This time, the network set up a diverse steering committee to plan the event. Students recruited volunteers in their English classes. Even football players modeled, along with parents and administrators. In addition to expensive togs from Nordstrom, they wore affordable fashions from Target and colorful ethnic clothes. The music reflected their exuberance, a mix of rap and Gloria Estefan.

"I was in tears," remembers Karen Canty, the parent of a senior and a stalwart networker. "All of us have been involved for so long--I know all these kids and love them."

For the parents, the planning process was just as important as the event. Parents of different races had to learn how to work together toward a common goal. And they quickly discovered that what parent Barbara White calls "white-lady meeting style" wasn't going to get the job done. Instead of businesslike gatherings dominated by lists and agendas, the parents relaxed and got to know one another as people first.

White, who has pressed the network to try to include more parents of color, recalls that parents would spend 45 minutes talking about their week. The mothers groused about their husbands--finding that marital spats transcend race and income. Then, they'd divvy up the work to be done in the last 20 minutes. Typically, she says, a mother would offer to have a friend make food. Another would offer a relative to head up security. Though far different from using caterers, the casual approach worked. The fashion-show group has since gotten together for potluck, just to stay in touch.

"We had to create relationships," says White, "not just have a goal and activities. If I make a personal connection with them, that's the way things are done in their communities. That took faith. If we had not had trust, we would have killed each other."

Vasiti Finau, a mother of a Class of 1997 youth from East Palo Alto, offered to sell $2,000 worth of tickets to the fashion show--but not if she had to use the school's sales forms. Another son, Molotoni, a 1991 graduate of Menlo-Atherton, watched as his mother became active in the network.

"Especially for a person of color, it's a lot better if you know them as friends," he says. "She didn't see it as just another group of white people, and that sparked her volunteering."

Not everyone has been similarly touched. Some parents of color are turned off by the predominantly white cast of the network, Guess readily acknowledges. Affluent whites either have flexible, professional jobs or don't work, he points out, while parents with "application jobs" can't put in the time.

Network members have adapted when they could--or figured out how to. For example, when they learned that Hispanic families' participation was limited by young children at home, they arranged for child care, boosting attendance at dessert nights and other functions.

Chris Mackey, an African-American parent and regular volunteer at M-A, has gotten up and walked out of network meetings, which she calls "a whitewash."

"I was feeling my anger come up," she says. "The majority of white kids have never experienced a thing, because their parents give them cars and then they look down on people. My idea of diversity is to switch places with the other kids to really understand the struggle of all the minority kids.

"Minority parents are just not involved. They don't feel welcome," Mackey says. "The mentality here is, 'They're going to do what they want to do, so why should I go?'"

Another day ends, and the line of cars snaking slowly along the school's front drive testifies to the different worlds of Menlo-Atherton students. A stylish mother in a polished red Porsche stops to pick up her son, while a Latino father in a battered red Toyota pickup with a camper top idles behind her.

Guess has no illusions that parent-led activities can bridge these gaps. He calls them exercises in "planting seeds" that may someday bear fruit. Desegregation may be the law, he notes, but integration is a choice. "We've worked hard to make the training work," he says, "but people are not walking along holding hands and skipping and saying, 'I'm glad we're diverse.' There are still some people who don't like each other."

It is also true, though, that the network's emphasis on creating a cadre of "nontraditional" leaders has deeply affected many students here. Cedra Hilliard, a senior bound for Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, helped train sophomores on the ropes course this year. She's a standout around school in her stylish matching outfits, including bright orange tube tops and orange platform sandals.

Poised and self-confident, Cedra admits she wasn't always comfortable at Menlo-Atherton. Her freshman year, she felt so awkward as one of the only minority students that she switched from "advanced standing" courses to the general track. "There weren't a lot of African-Americans," she says. "It felt weird to be in a class with a lot of Caucasians. I wouldn't raise my hand and answer."

'We've worked hard to make the training work, but people are not walking along holding hands and skipping saying, 'I'm glad we're diverse.' '

Gerald Guess,
Vice Principal,
Menlo-Atherton High School

Cedra knew only Polynesians, Latinos, and other black students that year. Now, she has more white friends--at school. "I can be cool with them and say hi, but not hang out with them on the weekend," she says. "You hang with the people you can relate to."

For Ashley Wilkinson, who lives in Atherton, M-A finally feels like home. "My first 2« years here," she says, "it was like 1,800 faces, and 1,700 were anonymous. This year is a total turnaround."

Tupo Tuupo, a football player of Samoan heritage heading to Washington State on a scholarship, also senses a shift. When he transferred to Menlo-Atherton his sophomore year, "it was real different. Everyone was in their own set or groups. It's segregated. It's strange, you know? But that's changed."

Tupo, a big man on campus who looks fashionable in oval, mirrored sunglasses, says he's met new friends as a discussion leader and found a welcome dimension to school beyond the routine of academics. "This is something big," he says. "A lot of kids I've talked to who go to other schools envy what we're doing. They like the idea of class unity."

Two seniors took that theme public to run for student body president and vice president on the "Unified M-A" ticket. They won. Jeff Camarillo, the president, a basketball player wearing a huge fake Rolex watch and knee-length baggy jeans-shorts, says class unity is a matter of respect, not necessarily socializing together. He's often found in the hallways with Khalil Rasheed, an African-American who serves as veep.

"High school is supposed to prepare you for the real world," explains Camarillo, who's half-white and half-Mexican and heading to the University of Pennsylvania. "I wouldn't want to be any other place."

Parents surveyed students and found that they wanted something almost hearbreakingly simple: to know each other.

While parents talk a lot about diversity and how the Menlo-Atherton network has opened their eyes, students seem less interested in issues of race and class. What touched many of them, instead, was the opportunity to work with their peers--on ropes courses or in group activities that at first seemed "cheesy," but turned out to have staying power.

Crystal James, Mackey's daughter and a discussion leader for the two-day retreat, shrugs off talk of race. "Everyone is all the same, but they may be a little different color."

But she warms to describing the workshops. "It was cool to see someone else get excited about something you helped them do," she remembers. She also participated in LinkCrew, the effort last fall to acclimate freshmen to the school, and did bridge-building activities with teachers at a faculty meeting last summer.

Chantelle Cappa, too, relished being a student facilitator "and not being in a teacher-type atmosphere where you're told what to do and say."

Chantelle, an outgoing teenager who's so involved at school that she finds herself double- and triple-booked some afternoons, was reduced to tears when the kids in her small group wouldn't open up and talk to each other. After the first unsuccessful day, Chantelle went home and thought about ways to bring her group out of their shells. "We ended up making Play-Doh and drawing pictures. The difference it made in them made me feel good about myself--to see these people come to life."

Kim Cooper, whose homecoming dance ended memorably, felt so "empowered" by leading her peers that she's gone on to do volunteer work all over the state for the California Association of Student Councils. An encounter with a gang member who confided in her during one workshop so touched her that it became the subject for her college-entrance essays.

Among college-bound students, Menlo-Atherton is a competitive place. Teachers strive hard to uphold the school's academic reputation and push for high scores on Advanced Placement tests. As college drew near for the Class of 1997, the talk among the white students tailgating at lunch in their section of the parking lot was of SAT scores, grades, admissions, and other pressure-cooker subjects.

That's one reason Kim, whose hopes of attending either Princeton or Stanford were dashed despite top grades, relishes her new friendships. "It's so nice to be around people that just wasn't an issue for," she says. "It didn't matter what score I got--they just liked me." Still, she is disturbed that so few minority students take advanced classes and by the anti-achievement attitudes some voice.

Crystal believes not enough black students volunteered to be trainers, for example, because they noticed that "a certain group of Caucasian students" were involved. "Some [white students] actually help, and others do it because it looks good on their record."

Some minority students who went through the discussion-group training failed to show up when it was time to lead their peers, Vice Principal Guess says. He speculates they felt "scared silly" by the unfamiliar roles.

Progress may show in smaller ways. White students had traditionally gotten together at one another's homes to build homecoming floats, neglecting to include students of color. But this year, Cedra says, more African-American students showed up at the senior class meetings, heard about the float-building, and joined in.

The Cantys had 60 teenagers at their house, a group as diverse as the school itself. Later, when kids got wild and egged each others' floats and zoomed around town in their cars, they got in equal-opportunity trouble. Guess, one of the school's two disciplinarians, proudly acknowledges it was a step forward.

For many seniors, the high point of the year came late this spring, when a couple guys organized a lunchtime barbecue on a day when younger students were taking standardized tests. They hauled charcoal and a grill to school in their trunks and put out the word among their friends.

Then they realized something. "It was not like, 'Hey, we need to invite Hispanics and Polynesians,'" explains Chantelle. "It was, 'Let's get Lupe and Tupo,' and they would bring their friends."

And they came. African-Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Caucasians, Latinos wolfed down burgers and tossed each other sodas. Administrators gently told them to move to a nearby public park, but seemed pleased, the kids say, to see the senior class united at last.

"It was one of those things that just happened," says Nick Leahy, Anne Leahy Jones' son and a skeptic about the Class of 1997 network's effort almost to the end. "When we're not focused and thinking about diversity, everything flows better."

Now, the students' eyes are focused on the future. Some of the network activities already seem distant.

But the Class of 1997 Network lives on. The classes of 1998, 1999, and 2000 have formed parent networks and conducted their own similar activities. Two representatives from each class, along with Principal Hartwig, make up a SuperNet steering committee. The challenge now is to make the leadership training an integral part of the school.

SuperNet, with Hartwig's support, secured a $75,000 grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to continue the programs. Last month, the school's site-based management committee agreed to chip in $6,500 and to schedule up to three days of leadership training next year for all students and teachers on what otherwise would have been staff-development days. That way, classes won't be interrupted. Those disruptions have been a sore point among some teachers, who feel their courses are being infringed upon.

Students managed to forge a sense of togetherness, even if it just meant saying 'Hi' to a wider range of peers in the hallways.

While a strain at times, the efforts to bring students together have struck a chord. A Menlo Park research group won a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to study the Class of 2000 at Menlo-Atherton. The study is part of a national $2.1 million program to examine racial and ethnic relations in diverse schools.

Many teachers agree that the school needs to do something about the segregation, lack of respect, and air of incivility on campus. Minority achievement also is a big concern; currently, fewer than 40 percent of Menlo-Atherton's minority students graduate.

But some faculty members question the value of the programs, calling them disorganized and pointing out that not all students take part.

Jocelyn Lee, a young black history teacher, believes the external effort skirts the real issue at Menlo-Atherton: "I don't think the faculty is equipped to handle students of color."

The artificial structure turned off Liane Strub, an English teacher, who felt put on the spot by "hateful and malicious" comments about teachers expressed by some students in her small group.

In contrast, Hartwig has seen teachers become charmed and inspired when they discern how capable students are in these alternative settings. One is Shannon Griscom, a 21-year veteran who conquered her own fear of heights on the ropes course with students' cheers and encouragement. Since last year, she says, her senior English classes have settled down quicker and refrained from the name-calling that made everyone tense.

"Everyone wants this school to work," Hartwig says. "But there's a little resistance to making it happen outside the 50-minute block, with things teachers aren't required to do. If it has overmuch a flavor of parental development, some teachers look at it skeptically."

In their clear-eyed way, the seniors sense these adult conflicts. The arguments, in turn, raise the larger question of what an education is all about.

"The problem is," Kim Cooper says, "in our society, learning calculus is not treated as equal to learning how to deal with different people."

Vol. 16, Issue 39, Page 34-39

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