Diverse peers at school educate in ways arithmetic can't

Sabrina Kennelly
Sabrina Kennelly is a senior at St. Paul Central High School. Photo courtesy of Sabrina
One girl from Ethiopia said she hears people who think all women in Ethiopia wear hijab. She explained that even though there are many Islamic people in Ethiopia, not all women choose to wear hijab. Hearing this changed my understanding of the Islamic faith.

From the hustle and bustle of University Avenue packed with restaurants from West Africa to Laos, to Highland Park’s Jewish community, to the West Side’s colorful murals showing their pride for Mexican heritage, I’ve been able to learn about many different cultures because I live in the heart of St. Paul.

I also go to school that embodies this diversity in St. Paul, Central High School, which has helped me become a well-rounded student and apply what I have learned from school to real life.

I love Central’s diversity, and that’s why I’m concerned about the Saint Paul Public School district’s new plan, “Strong Schools, Strong Communities.” Because of new busing restrictions, I’m worried this plan might allow schools to become racially segregated again.

My appreciation of other cultures started during elementary school at L’Etoile Du Nord French Immersion School where we did things like African drumming, gazing at French renaissance paintings and hearing about the fur traders of Quebec.

I remember, on the first day of school in fourth grade, being petrified of an African mask hanging on the classroom wall. It’s elongated mouth and eyes stared straight back into my big blue eyes for the entirety of the day. Little did I know, by the end of the school year, the mask would change from being scary to beautiful as my teacher taught us how the mask was used at funerals to honor the death of a loved one during a celebration feast.

Now I’m a senior at Central, and my appreciation for other cultures, especially sharing classrooms with people of other cultures, has expanded.

In my sophomore acting class, for example, we went around the circle and each student proudly stated his or her nationality and one misconception often heard. One girl from Ethiopia said she hears people who think all women in Ethiopia wear hijab. She explained that even though there are many Islamic people in Ethiopia, not all women choose to wear hijab. Hearing this changed my understanding of the Islamic faith.

This information was helpful for me last fall in French class when we learned about a new law proposed in France that would make wearing burkas, a type of clothing that covers the everything but the eyes, illegal in France. I felt like I could freely discuss the law with my classmates because of what I learned from my Ethiopian classmate.

At Central, 33 percent of students are Caucasian, 32 percent are African-American, 29 percent are Asian, 5 percent are Hispanic, and 1 percent Native American. Central students speak more than 40 different languages at home.

With this new plan, the district is predicting the racial make-up of students at Central will change to 28 percent Caucasian, 34 percent African American, 6 percent Hispanic, 31 percent Asian, and 1 percent Native American.

These data may not seem too significant, but they are only a prediction. Some of the students I know who attend Central now wouldn’t qualify for busing unless they chose to do the IB program at Central because they live too far away.

The real cause for concern about this plan is for some elementary schools. Jim Hilbert, a professor of law at William Mitchell said, after analyzing district projections for his work with the NAACP, that there will be major racial shifts on the elementary level.

This reminded me of when I was in elementary school; by going to a school with such diverse cultures, I got to learn and accept people’s values for what they were at a young age. I am more comfortable in high school with all kinds of people because I started learning at a young age.

Also, some high schools on the east side of the city are predicted to have a single racial group be 50 percent of the population.

In eighth grade, I heard a poem by a Central student describing her love for the school. Every sentence that flowed out of her mouth described and detailed the multitude of races at Central. She used imagery to convey the love she thought students had for one another; how at times the school felt divided, but that all students bonded because of similarities despite differences.

Since hearing this poem, I haven’t thought of Central as being any different from what she described that day. Walking through the doors, you feel as if you’re at Disney World’s Epcot Center with students from all over the world.

I interviewed Saint Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva about concerns this new plan could impact diversity in school in the district. She said that the district would be monitoring closely any demographic changes, and if problems develop, will respond quickly.

I really hope the school district can keep this promise. Every day, I learn something new from the students around me. What I learn from these students helps me apply what I have learned in the classroom to real life, helping me become a worldly citizen.