Schools emphasize benefits of cultural diversity

Ten years ago, six pupils in the Boardman school system couldn't speak English. This year there are 52.
The situation is similar at schools throughout the region. Last year in Ohio, 20,000 pupils enrolled in public schools could not speak English well enough to effectively participate in their schools' educational programs. This was an 18 percent increase over the 1999-2000 school year and a 100 percent increase over the number of pupils learning English as a second language 10 years ago, according to the Ohio Department of Education.
As more pupils from around the world immigrate to the Mahoning Valley, the need for school programs specific to pupils learning English as a second language, and the opportunities for pupils to share their diverse cultural backgrounds increase, said Simone Arnold.
Arnold developed Boardman's program to teach English as a second language and teaches pupils in the district's elementary and high schools.
Having things in common
"Kids are kids all over the world," Arnold said. They find ways to communicate even though they don't speak each other's languages and they discover that they have more similarities than differences, she said.
"They accept each other for whatever they are. I've had Jews and Palestinians in the same class who are friends."
Elementary pupils aren't always aware of their cultural differences, she continued, but high school pupils are very interested. "They are always asking each other, 'How do you say this in your language?'"
They discuss each other's holidays and customs and are very considerate, Arnold said, citing the absence of snacks in her classroom.
Arnold usually allows herpupils to bring a snack to class, she explained, but during Ramadan, a month of fasting observed by Muslims, no one brings anything.
"Diversity is very healthy. The more you know about people, the more you understand the world," Arnold said. "I tell my kids a true society is a diverse society. That's what makes Boardman schools so strong -- we have such diversity."
Rich in diversity
Students at Liberty High School feel the same way. The student body there is a mosaic of white, black, Hispanic, Arab and Asian cultures; Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and atheists; vegetarians and meat-eaters.
"We have an advantage over students from more segregated schools," said Monique Bowman, a 17-year-old senior who is black. "We know how to get along with other people. They have to learn once they get out in the real world."
Classmate Shereen Esmail, an 18-year-old Palestinian senior, echoes her friend.
"In high school we just all blended together. We always discuss religion. The differences depend on what light you put Jesus in."
Unlike Christians, who believe Jesus is the son of God, Jews and Muslims believe he is a prophet, she explained.
The Liberty Political Awareness Club and the Global Politics Club, which meet after school, also afford students the opportunity to discuss cultural and social differences, Esmail said.
Because many Liberty students are Jewish or Muslim, she noted, "we talk a lot about what's going on in the Middle East. We don't argue," she stressed. "We just discuss."
Free to ask questions
"We're very open here," Bowman interjected. "I might say to one of my black friends that I need a relaxer for my hair and one of my other friends might ask me, what is a relaxer? Why do you need it?
"Or, they've asked me why some black people are so angry or why they are so loud. I tell them maybe they were raised that way or maybe that's just the way they are."
Stereotypes aren't accurate, Esmail said.
During lunch, groups of friends often organize potluck buffets where they have the opportunity to learn about one another's culinary heritages. On a recent potluck day, Esmail said she brought Arabic cookies and hummus, a chickpea and garlic dip. A Jewish friend brought latkes, a type of potato pancake, and Bowman brought cobbler, a fruit dessert.
They've also made Spanish food and bread to celebrate the Day of the Dead, a feast day Mexicans set aside to honor their dead ancestors, Bowman said.
All in it together
Because learning about one another has been an ongoing process at Liberty High School, students have been able to avoid misinformation and stereotyping classmates.
After the World Trade Center was attacked, many Muslims were worried that they might become targets, Esmail said, but she felt perfectly safe at school. Esmail is Muslim.
"Nobody brought it up. We just discussed the attack and we all grieved together. At Liberty -- as a whole -- we are conquering ignorance."
"I just believe in being myself. I'm open to everything," Bowman added.
Both girls plan to attend college next year.
Bowman is the daughter of Vanessa Bowman of Liberty and Marcellus Bowman of Columbus.
Esmail is the daughter of Ziyad and Najwa Esmail of Liberty.

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