SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – Whittier Middle School and Washington High School are two of the most diverse schools within the Sioux Falls School District.
“Under 25 percent of our population is white and represented in that other 75 are about 21 other cultures, nationalities,” Erika Paladino, principal of Whittier Middle School said.
“At Washington, you can see the diversity just by looking around, let’s say the lunch room. You can see the different groups and you can see how everyone comes from different backgrounds, but at the same time they all blend together with people working together,” Antoinette Bita, a junior at Washington High School said.
And having representation within diverse settings is important.
“Most of the time, being around people who don’t look like you, don’t come from the same cultural background as you, many people don’t understand how you feel due to the fact that they haven’t really seen or embraced the same things you have throughout life. So, it kind of isolates you when you don’t have people that think like you or look like you,” Meshachlen Seon, a junior at Washington High School said.
The Black Student Union at Washington High School hopes to promote diversity and have hard conversations around race relations.
“And especially with the conversations, getting them started is something that’s actually really helpful, even for our own members, and we’re always welcome to other people wanting to join us because the conversations are conversations that do need to be had,” Bita said.
For Black History Month, BSU leaders hosted a showcase where performances included Black history education.
“I would say that, to recognize this month, is basically to show that, through struggle comes strength. And basically, like, although many bad things have happened in the past, at least we can be here today to show that we are free and we have the right to celebrate this month,” Seon said.
Last year, faculty and staff at Whittier Middle School started the Culture Squad.
“So we picked representation, you would see different flags around Whittier that weren’t here before. What do you want to hear, what kind of conversations are we having, what are we doing.” Paladino said.
They’ve hosted events to educate students on different cultures through games, food and history.
“I got some wonderful feedback from some of my students, who said things like, ‘it makes us understand other cultures more, it makes us more respectful of other cultures because we know more about them.” Ann Robertson, the Native American Studies teacher at Whittier said.
The Culture Squad also hopes to facilitate difficult conversations about race relations and different cultures in a safe environment for the students.
“Our kids see it all. Whether it’s social media or in the news, and so, by being able to address those things in a respectful and appropriate way at school, it makes all the difference, rather than just pretending that those things aren’t already out there,” Casandra Beckette, the counselor and success coordinator at Whittier said.
“And so, the goal, well one of the goals of the culture squad is to give both students and teachers information and words and systems to be able to be able to have those conversations. Because the more we have those conversations, the more we can understand the people that we work with, that we live with and that we teach,” Paladino said.