(Updated 2:55 p.m., Wed., Feb. 25)
Students from across the St. Louis area regrouped this morning as a follow-up to a first of its kind race summit last month.
At the initial event, students voted on what they thought was the best solution to bridge racial divides in the St. Louis area. The winning idea was to create a sister-school program. Students from matched schools would temporarily "exchange" schools as a way to build relationships and understanding.
For example, students at the mostly white Seckman, part of the Fox School District in south St. Louis County, will visit students at the mostly black Hazelwood East in north St. Louis County on March 10.
Seckman High School junior Kyle Edwards said the summit was empowering students to bridge long-standing racial divides.
“They’re putting (student ideas) into action right here right now in front of our eyes,” Edwards said.
Organizers asked students from the 14 high schools at the first summit to update their progress on the sister school program. The event at Ritenour High School included four more schools. Parts of the summit were streamed online.
During a panel discussion with students, Missouri's Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven asked what state officials can do to help students. The responses ranged from requiring high schools to offer a class on social justice to ensuring all students are held to high academic standards.
Vandeven said she can take back several of those ideas to the state board of education.
“The sister school concept can be seen and used in a lot of different areas,” Vandeven said. “I wonder what it would look like if teachers had the opportunity to do that.”
The event was put together by EducationPlus, an organization that represents St. Louis area school districts. Another event is scheduled for May.
“This is not a three-month endeavor or a four-month endeavor,” said Drew Schwartz, director of learning and career advancement at EducationPlus. “This is something that EducationPlus is behind for the long run. I’m behind it for the long run. These students, most importantly, are behind it for the long run to make sustainable change in the community.”
Read our earlier story below. It was published Jan. 15, 2015.
After spending their morning listening to presentations about race, more than 100 students from 14 high schools were asked to come up with ways to overcome the region's deep racial divides.
The students, selected by school administrators as leaders, were supposed to present their ideas to the larger group. At the end of the summit, students were to vote for what they thought was the best solution.
As they began to work among their classmates, something unexpected happened. Groups of teenagers began hearing what students from another school were talking about.
“I feel that it’s good to know they want to get to know us and we want to get to know them,” said Annta Blackwell, a junior at McCluer.
Besides, Blackwell asked, what good does it do just to talk with other students who look like you? And soon, some students like Blackwell decided they should join groups from other schools.
Teanna Bass, a senior at the predominantly black Hazelwood East, didn't know what to expect when she combined tables with students from mostly white Seckman High School in the Fox School District in Imperial.
“I’ve worked with white people,” Bass said. “I’ve been around white people, but I've just never actually gotten the chance to sit down and talk with someone who doesn't look like me.”
Her fear didn’t last long. Despite talking about difficult issues, Bass said, the conversation started to flow.
“Being able to talk with someone who is completely opposite of me, but just based off of race, that just opened my eyes,” Bass said. “It’s like, I can be the same person with someone who is not like me or who doesn't look like me.”
Bass found herself at ease with Seckman high school junior Kyle Edwards despite their racial difference. At first Edwards was unsure of what to make of Bass.
“When we got in our groups and started talking, I realized she had some awesome ideas,” Edwards said. “She was speaking the truth and that’s why I like her.”
In making their own personal connections across racial lines at the merged tables, Bass' and Edwards’ group came up with the winning idea: a sister school program. Students from matched schools would temporarily exchange schools as a way to build relationships and understanding.
“They're predominantly white, and we're predominantly black," Bass said. "Swapping schools and seeing a day in the life in their school and them seeing a day in the life in our school -- basically it’s our way to try and expand the conversation.”
Edwards said the plan focuses on personal change because that’s where the collective group thought they could have the greatest impact.
“It starts with student changing their mindsets because we are the next generation up,” Edwards said. “We’re going to be adults one day."
This type of conversation is exactly what EducationPlus, which represents St. Louis-area school districts, wanted when it began work to put together the race summit.
"We’ve always conceptualized this as the beginning or the catalyst for something the students are going to grow,” said Drew Schwartz, director of learning and career advancement at EducationPlus.
Work to organize the summit began in October. Just like students hesitant to merge tables, Schwartz said some administrators were initially lukewarm to the idea. But 14 schools, including Confluence Prep Academy, Francis Howell North, Grand Center Arts Academy, Hazelwood Central, Maplewood-Richmond-Heights and McCluer signed on for the first of its kind summit.
“We really wanted to hit the nail on the head,” Schwartz said. “Let’s be brave, let’s be bold, let’s let the students tackle race.”
Now that a winning idea has been selected students will return to their schools and develop ways to refine the sister school concept. EducationPlus will host a student led follow up event on Feb. 25 with ultimate goal of getting the concept off the ground and a date has already been set for a 2016 race summit.
“We’re millennium babies, we’re the 21st century,” said Parkway North freshman Yogini Patel. “And it’s our generation that will make the change.”