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Red Raider students: R you ready for respect?

March 7, 2012

At Wauwatosa East this week, it was all about highlighting one "R" word eliminating another "R" word.

"We really emphasize that words matter," said Sonja Nelson, a social worker who is coordinating the week's activities.

One goal was building "respect" for individual differences, ranging from one's ethnic or racial makeup to how they dress and their sexual preference.

The other was getting rid of the word "retard" in deference to the approximately 140 special education students at the school.

CAFÉ group helps plan

To address those two goals, Nelson, with the help of the student group that forms the CAFÉ (Cultural Alliance for East), is conducting several activities.

A paper-brick wall with individual bricks is going up with students filling in the blanks for the statement: "Just because I'm (blank) doesn't mean I'm (blank)."

Nelson said the exercise is meant to destroy stereotypes based on what people see or hear from any individual.

"We want this to be a great visual for students to see that others are more than what's on the surface," Nelson said. "We want students to learn active listening and understand the importance of intent vs. impact of what they say. "We would love to see them master mediation. Of course, all of this takes time, but we want them to learn those skills and begin practicing them."

To support special education students, the week also features participation in a national Spread the Word to End the Word campaign that features students pledging to wipe out disrespectful words from their vocabulary.

"It's really an important part of what we are doing this week," Nelson said. "Our special education students are part of our culture."

To drive home the point even further, Special Olympian Cindy Bentley was the featured speaker for an all-school assembly on Wednesday. Bentley, who has competed for years in various sports, has written a book about her life. The Milwaukee resident visits schools and other organizations all over the state to spread her own word about how her life has meaning and respect.

Who is Tosa East?

To address every type of cultural difference, Nelson and the CAFÉ committee created videos featuring students and even a few faculty members. They asked their subjects to complete the sentence, "I am (blank) and I am Tosa East."

The results ranged from matter-of-fact to light-hearted statements about one's life. While a number of students talked about their ethic and racial heritage - including that they came from another country - others began their comments with "My grandmother dated Les Paul," "My grandfather served in the Vietnam War," "I like butter," "I don't wash my hair," and "We're twins."

Serious or humorous, Nelson said the video which also was presented on Wednesday's assembly, portrays all the differences that makes up the Wauwatosa community.

Community reflection

"This just shows what people think about in terms of what makes them different," Nelson said. "When it comes down to it, Wauwatosa East is a community and has its own culture."

Principal Nick Hughes said, "Our culture is evolving. It is a reflection of the outer community. For example, some people think that all of our African-American students are here because of Chapter 220 and open enrollment. That just isn't the case, because our population has changed. You can look at every segment of students and see that the community outside the school has changed."

Hughes also noted that the difference in cultures between East and West is minimal.

"I talk to (West Principal) Frank Calarco regularly about our student populations," Hughes said. "I have experience working in both schools and I can say that we are not that different from each other."

West held a similar program two weeks ago, a Spirit Week emphasizing general respect themes as well as a focus on race relations.

A year ago, both high schools worked with the U.S. Department of Justice to identify key issues for the students and staff to identify and address.

Both schools report that the work leading up to these recent weeklong programs and the results from them are a starting point to help students cope socially both in and out of the classroom.

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