Just before entering the Wauwatosa West auditorium Friday to hear a presentation on racial and ethnic harmony as part of the school's Spirit Week activities, Superintendent Phil Ertl expressed a wish for the future.
"I just hope the students realize that this isn't just for one week," he said. "This needs to be the starting point."
The "this" Ertl referenced is the focus of a new initiative in which social change is as important as learning - making social harmony essential to maximizing the academic experience.
Creating harmony for academics
The district laid the groundwork for that focus last April when it partnered with the U.S. Department of Justice to measure attitudes of Asian, Latino, Caucasian and African-American students. Topics ranged from dress codes and general respect about differences to bullying and racial bias and slurs. The result was the formation of a Spirit Committee, the beginning of conversation about those uncomfortable topics and the planning of this year's April Week.
West's Social Worker Sue Walczak said last week's series of activities focused on the premise that what one says and what one does matters in and out of school. Students completed a survey designed to identify issues and awareness of the cultural differences represented by West students.
Challenge within the positives
"The results showed that the vast majority of students feel they feel accepted and that they can rely on an adult to support them," Walczak said. On the negative side, she noted that some students feel the dress code is not fair because it does not consider the differences in body types, students did not realize some of the personal pressures facing others and that racial tension exists.
To address those issues, Spirit Week featured an opportunity for students to express their personal, anonymous response to the question: "If you knew me, you would know …"
Among the hundreds of responses: "My mom and my sister are drug addicts and I watched my little sister die," "I make jokes about my insecurities so people will think I'm kidding. I'm not," "I am not as happy as I seem and that I cry every day," "I can't dream" and "I was raped."
Students wrote their messages on note cards and put them in a box and then the cards were posted on a large board in the atrium outside the cafeteria.
"The messages speak for themselves," Walczak said.
A message from experience
Friday's program focusing on racial and ethnic relationships was presented by Demond Means, the superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville School District and a former human resources director at the Wauwatosa School District.
He related his own experiences as an African American growing up in Sherman Park on Milwaukee's far West Side and learning other cultures as he went through college.
"I would never have been able to learn about other cultures unless I was open and willing to do so," Means said.
He told the students breaking down cultural barriers includes owning one's own behavior, communicating needs without attitude and being willing to work at learning the way other people live.
"If you are serious about it, you need to be willing to spend time with people in their own neighborhoods and experience what they experience," Means said.
Students weigh in
Carra Gaines, an African American member of the Spirit Team, said the racial tensions that exist will take time to change.
"A lot of kids don't really care," she said. "They haven't thought about it. I hope that this can begin to change their minds, but I'm not sure."
Will Harrington, another Spirit Team member, pointed out that Wauwatosa's social fabric extends to class and party cultures. He said seniors are unhappy that they no longer have exclusive rights, such as Trojan Room study hall privileges and open campus privileges where they can spend their free period outside of the school.
"They see that as something that has been taken away," he said. "It is a more tightly run school."
Principal Frank Calarco said the school is "not changing any rules. We're just enforcing what rules we have."
He noted that the study hall and open campus privileges are tied to grade-point averages.
"It's simple," he said, "If you maintain at least B average, you get those privileges. I understand that seniors want to feel like they earned them, but we want students to earn them by earning good grades."
Calarco is hopeful that the Spirit Week will begin to set a new course. He said a cultural diversity fair that will be held in the near future should positively reinforce the messages.
"We have a diverse student population," he said. "We need to do these things in order to grow and provide the best possible academic environment."
Next week, Wauwatosa East will conduct its weeklong activities. Social Worker Sonja Nelson said the school will take a celebratory approach. She pointed to projects such as videotaping hundreds of students who show their diversity within the theme of "I am Tosa East" as well as students completing the sentence, "Just because I'm (this) doesn't mean I'm (that)" to help dispel stereotypes.
"We know there are tensions in every school," Nelson said, but we want to celebrate all the differences in who we are."
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