• December 2010

The Value of Diversity in Our Schools

Robert Kennedy said: “Ultimately, America’s answer to the intolerant man is diversity, the very diversity which our heritage of religious freedom has inspired.”

High school senior Victoria Tran, Superintendent Ann Monday, and mom Eileen Kugler, author of “Debunking the Middle Class Myth,” couldn’t agree more. Read on to learn what they think about diversity in our schools.

By Victoria Tran
Fairfax High School

I was recently asked what has it been like growing up in a multicultural community such as Fairfax City.

My answer is simple. Growing up in the multicultural community of Fairfax City has defined who I am. Because of my exposure to different people, ideas, and beliefs at an early age, I have become more open-minded and more knowledgeable of the many different cultures that coexist in our community.

I am so grateful to have been given this opportunity to grow up in one of the most diverse regions in the world.

I cannot see myself attending a school that has anything other than a diverse population.

How can someone adapt to the real world if she never meets anyone who disagrees with her?

A diverse student body definitely has its benefits, including our many culture clubs (Vietnamese Student Association and Bhangra Dance Club), Gay-Straight Alliance Club, and Tai Chi Club. In particular, Fairfax High accommodates people of all different heritages and interests.

Despite my Vietnamese surname, I have a Chinese heritage. My Chinese background has always affected and influenced the way I look at the world. Naturally, my parents place a huge emphasis on academics, but they also stress the importance of learning about my culture.

While spending a month in China volunteering for the 2008 Olympics, I was immersed in an entirely unfamiliar lifestyle. What I learned most about myself after fully submerging myself in a different society is how lucky and happy I am to be living in one of the wealthiest and cleanest nations in the world.

Besides being proud of my heritage, I have also developed a deep appreciation for the many different cultures and people in the world. I have always gravitated towards people who share the same beliefs as I do.

Thus, none of my friends consider diversity an issue; in fact, it is the lack of it that causes them concern. My friends and I dedicate every other weekend to a type of “International Night,” which is essentially a potluck of delicious meals from all different cultures ranging from Middle-Eastern “samosas” to the Korean “bokumbap.”

If I were a parent, I’d most definitely raise my children in a multicultural environment. And I would tell future generations about the importance of diversity is that it is essentially the foundation of our nation. Once nicknamed the “melting pot,” America is a land of different people and cultures. With its increasing integration, it will not be surprising in the future to see no such thing as an “ethnic majority” anymore.

My parting thought is this: The best way to deal with the exponentially increasing diversity of Fairfax City is to have open arms and an open mind.

About High school senior Victoria Tran: Victoria Tran is the City of Fairfax School Board’s Student Representative for 2010-2011. As a student leader at Fairfax High School, she serves as the Public Affairs Officer on the Student Government Council, and is an active member of the Student Government Association, as well as the Student Advisory Committee. She is also the Vice President of the Math Honor Society, and a member of the National Honor Society and Spanish Honor Society. In her spare time, Tran volunteers with organizations such as Key Club and Amnesty International, and celebrates her culture with the Vietnamese Student Association. In the summer of 2008, she volunteered at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in China, and acted as a counselor for RECPAC at Oakmarr’s Recreation Center. She plans to attend a four-year university next year.

By Ann Monday
City of Fairfax Schools

I have two granddaughters, ages 4 and 6. I am fortunate that they live in McLean, Virginia, so that I can see them regularly. Being with them keeps me young — and makes me so aware of how the world is changing.

For example, among their very favorite foods are sushi and hummus. When I was their age, and even when their mother was a little girl, these foods were unknown in most American homes. Now, like many other international cuisines, these previously exotic dishes are commonplace.

My granddaughters’ classrooms are reflective of the growing diversity in our region, as the children in them represent nearly every ethnic group. The girls ride bicycles with neighborhood children from Saudi Arabia and go to the beach with a family of Asian descent.

They have dark-skinned dolls that they like to play with, and when they play dress-up they comfortably make believe that they are characters who look nothing like themselves. They expect that their world will be filled with people who are different from them, yet they rarely seem to notice or care about these differences.

Our City schools have become increasingly diverse. Demographics have shifted so that there is no longer a racial majority in the student population. Our students are learning about different cultures and customs in the most natural way possible — through their daily work and play.

I am not among those who worry that this diversity is not good for our schools. While recognizing that educating children with diverse background is challenging, the benefits for all children can be great.

In fact, even as the student body has become more diverse at Fairfax High School, every measure of achievement — SOL scores, SAT scores, AP enrollments, and test results — have improved.

This success reflects the commitment in all of our schools to high expectations for all students. Our principals and teachers and counselors know that every child, from pre-school to high school, brings special gifts to the classroom, so they nurture the potential of each student. And they create school communities that value understanding and acceptance of differences among people.

I know that as my granddaughters continue their journeys through school and life, they will be well-served by their diverse schools and community. They will be prepared to work side-by-side with people who have different backgrounds and viewpoints. I expect that they will continue to find that it is these differences, like the wonderful flavors and textures of their favorite ethnic foods, that make their lives fuller, richer, and more interesting.

About Superintendent Ann Monday: Educational leader and City of Fairfax resident Ann Monday became Superintendent of the City Schools on July 1, 2007. She retired on June 30 as the Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services for Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), a district she has worked in since 1973 when she became a teacher at Kilmer Intermediate School in Vienna. In 2003, Monday was tapped to become Cluster VI Superintendent, and was responsible for 24 elementary and secondary schools. The following year, she took on a division-wide leadership position as the FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Instruction, responsible for all instructional programs from pre-K through adult education.

By Eileen Kugler
Mom and Author
Debunking the Middle-Class Myth

I’ve lived in Northern Virginia for 30 years, and one reason I love it is its incredible diversity. Our neighborhoods and schools are filled with children from all over the world, with different backgrounds and life experiences.

Our diverse schools offer unique academic and social advantages to every student of every background. Not only did I see this myself as the parent of two middle-class white children, I hear that repeatedly from parents, students, and educators from diverse schools around the country. Here’s what we see:

1. Classes are more engaging when students learn not only from the teacher and textbooks but also from the personal experiences of other students. A high school World History teacher told me he has to be on his toes every day because someone in the class always knows more about an event than he does!

2. Students learn to think more deeply and question more when peers with different perspectives challenge them. My kids learned how to respect others’ opinions while digging deep into their own. Dialogue — what a concept!

3. Students are open to new approaches and new ways of thinking. Professors at top universities, from UVA and UCLA, to Harvard and Smith, tell me they prefer students from diverse schools because “they see alternatives; they look beyond the obvious.”

4. Students accept difference of all types. Because there is no “normal” in diverse schools, students look beyond what makes us different and see the human being. Prejudices and stereotypes break down when students have the opportunity to get to know peers from other backgrounds on a personal level.

5. Students gain an appreciation for what they have. Want an antidote for the “spoiled-child syndrome”? Send your kid to a diverse school. Children gain perspective from friends who work not just to buy their own athletic shoes, but shoes for their little brothers.

Now that my children are young adults, they are comfortable talking to just about anyone about any topic. They have friends and colleagues from every walk of life. They appreciate “the privilege” (their word) of having attended a diverse public school. What greater gift could we give our children?

About Mom and author Eileen Kugler: Eileen Kugler is a global speaker and consultant on strengthening diverse schools and communities. She is author of the award-winning “Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools Are Good for All Kids” and was honored as Virginia Educational Advocate of the Year. Her new book, “Culturally Competent Schools: Where Learning Gets Personal,” will come out next year. For more information, visit her website, www.EmbraceDiverseSchools.com.

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