Bridging St. Louis' racial divide with a school exchange program
Many schools in the St. Louis Region are wrapping up their last few weeks of class for the 2014-15 school year. For some, the year was shaped by the August shooting death of Michael Brown, an incident which left many students and adults wondering how they could bridge the racial divide in the region. One solution a group of students came up with: a school exchange program.
The school exchange is part of a what they are calling a "sibling school program." It's an idea students invented at a student race summit held in January. You can read more about the summit . We also profiled the student exchange as part an episode of a We Live Here podcast titled "Growing Up Apart."
For the exchange program, schools with students who come from different racial and economic background are paired up. For example, a school like Hazelwood East in north St. Louis County, which is about 97 percent African American, is partnered with Seckman High School in the Fox School District in Jefferson County, which is 97 percent white. Earlier this year about a dozen students from Hazelwood East traveled to Seckman and vice versa.
We asked a handful of students from Hazelwood East and Seckman to share their thoughts with us after visiting each others' schools.
Anissa Perkins, Senior at Hazelwood East
“I has such a great experience at Seckman High School. Everybody was nice. Of course, you had people that were staring, but they would look at you and be like, 'Well, when did they start going here?' Or, you know, 'We’ve never seen so many black kids.'”
“They made sure we felt comfortable and they didn't mind asking questions and I didn't mind answering them.”
Seckman has 8 classes a day, Anissa said the 40 minute classes made the day go really quick.
“They really wanted to talk to us and the teachers were so excited to see us that they asked us like a billion questions.”
School lunch is school lunch no matter what building you're in.
“At the end of the day, I really appreciated all the Seckman kids helping us around the school. I’m excited for what the future will bring and the other kids at my school next year to be able to come and experience it as well … I am really happy that I got to go on this trip. I really appreciate it. It really open my eyes to new things.”
Kyle Edwards, Junior at Seckman High School
“Just pulling up to the school, I saw how freaking huge it was and all I could compare it to was East high from "High School Musical." It was just all windows a brand new library. Everything was just huge compared to our school.”
He said there was a big difference between honors classes and regular classes. In both content and student engagement.
“I got a couple stares. I noticed it was really either one or the other. I either felt like I was either really being looked at or I wasn't being looked at at all. One of the teachers actually said to me ‘Oh, don't mind her, she just doesn't see white boys a lot.’”
Most of the teachers that Kyle saw were white. But he said he only saw one white Hazlewood East student during the day.
“We were expecting this huge, big difference and maybe that’s the problem. Maybe we think that’s there such this distance. Maybe we just over think it and we think there is suppose be this huge distinct difference between us but there's not.”
Those are some thoughts from a pair of students who spent one day at each other's schools. But is one day enough to help racial understanding?
Probably not, according to Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, an associate professor of psychology at University of California-Berkeley, who studies prejudice of intergroup relations.
He said an exchange like the Sibling Program held is a good place to start building understanding, but for real change to happen, it has to be sustained.
“Simply going for a day is not going to address at a deep level: issues of implicit bias; issues of stereotyping; issues of disconfirming negative stereotypes that may be there,” Mendoza Denton said.
Students and organizers of the Student Race Summit are working to sustain the connection between the schools in the program. Another race summit meeting is scheduled for June.