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A multicultural swirl enlivens school day

But schools could lose some of the experience.

By RON MATUS and DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writers
Published November 14, 2007

Martin Reeden, 14, a freshman, sports "mix it up" stickers on his face during a 20-minute break in the quad area outside of the cafeteria at Dixie Hollins High School.
[Dirk Shadd | Times]
[Dirk Shadd | Times]
From left: Kevin Allen, 16, walks along with Crystal Rockne, the American Sign Language teacher, and Mohamed Shamseddine, 16, while encouraging students to mingle during a 20 minute break in the quad area outside of the cafeteria at Dixie Hollins High School on Tuesday morning.

[Dirk Shadd | Times]
Brandon Aston, 14, left, and Matthew Santiago, 14, share earphones during a break at Dixie Hollins High School.

Andrea Beaumier can't stomach the thought of her school becoming predominantly white.

"What's the fun in going to school with all the same people?" said Beaumier, 15, who is white and a freshman at Dixie Hollins High School in unincorporated Pinellas County. "It's like plain pasta. You got to have seasoning."

Beaumier will have to get used to pasta without seasoning. So will a lot of students.

According to district projections, Dixie Hollins could become resegregated in the near future. The black student population already has dropped from 25 to 19 percent, and could go as low as 5 percent as the school's racial makeup begins to reflect the neighborhoods surrounding it.

In the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limits districts' ability to use race in assigning children to schools, the same trend is accelerating elsewhere in Pinellas, around Tampa Bay and across the nation.

Crystal Rockne, one of Andrea's teachers, calls the change heartbreaking. Without diversity, she said, Dixie Hollins and other resegregated schools will produce graduates who are book smart but "socially retarded."

"They just won't get the exposure they need," she said.

To ramp up that exposure, Beaumier and Rockne participated Tuesday in something called Mix It Up at Lunch Day. Sponsored by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, the annual event is designed to get kids to step out of their cliques and comfort zones, however briefly, and learn from what they find. More than two dozen Tampa Bay area schools were among 10,000 that took part nationwide.

But even those who support such efforts say it doesn't do much good unless the effort is sustained. And given national trends, they worry it will get tougher to do so. The potential result: a world where ugly stereotypes fester even more than they do now, and where racism cuts that much deeper.

"There are still a lot of pervasive stereotypes about ethnically and racially marginalized groups," said Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College in Atlanta and author of Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation.

"Children who don't have first-hand experience in a diverse learning environment are likely to be internalizing these stereotypes."

No other social institution has brought together children of different backgrounds better than public schools. Yet debate about the Supreme Court ruling - and related issues like the proposed student assignment plan in Pinellas - has centered mostly on academic fallout.

Pinellas superintendent Clayton Wilcox has downplayed concerns about the assignment plan, referring to decades of desegregation efforts as "failed social policies" that resulted in "faux integration." The School Board tentatively approved the plan 6-1 Tuesday, putting one more vote between the district's eventual return to a system of neighborhood schools. Some will become predominantly black for the first time since 1970.

Without a doubt, the nexus where schools and race intersect is a thorny, complicated place.

When the lunch bell rings at Dixie Hollins, students pour out of classrooms and descend on "the Quad" in a multicultural swirl. Then the clumps form: Asian students here, white students there, black students over there.

Even in racially mixed schools, culture clashes happen. Just this week, the Council on American-Islamic Relations accused Pinellas officials of responding too slowly after a Muslim student at Azalea Middle School complained that a classmate threatened to kill her.

Those who stress the upside of integration say that despite what happens in even the most diverse schools at lunch, there is still interaction in classrooms - and at least the opportunity for interaction in the lunchroom, in the bleachers, at the prom.

"One of the very important missions of schools is to socialize youngsters so they begin to see the value of good citizenship in a democratic society, where plurality is a way of life," said Francisco M. Negron, general counsel at the National School Boards Association. "I think it's really short-sighted to suggest that schools don't have that as an educational mission."

If projections hold true, a lot more students in Pinellas will miss out on that part of the mission.

Some Pinellas high schools, like Lakewood and Gibbs, will become overwhelmingly black under the district's assignment plan, while others, like Dixie Hollins and Northeast, will become far whiter.

That means schools will have to try that much harder to promote multicultural activities, said Cindy Flora, who coordinates the district's Principal's Multicultural Advisory Committee.

Without such activities, "students won't be as well prepared for our global society," Flora said.

At Dixie Hollins, Rockne, who teaches American Sign Language, encouraged her students to participate in Mix It Up at Lunch Day.

Some of her students, like Beaumier, used "Mix It Up" stickers to break the ice. Others, like junior Kevin Allen, offered an outstretched hand and a how-you-doing-sir?

Allen, who is black and rides the bus from south St. Petersburg, said the school's diversity has allowed him to make friends across racial lines. "When you stop diversity, that's what causes conflict," he said.

But Allen also said students should be able to choose their school. And had it been his choice three years ago, he would have picked a school closer to home, maybe Gibbs, Lakewood or Northeast.

Freshman Carlos Rivera, who also rides the bus from south St. Petersburg, said he worries what his 5-year-old brother will encounter in a less-diverse school, perhaps one that doesn't have a substantial pocket of Hispanic students like Dixie Hollins.

"I would go nuts," said Rivera, who is Hispanic. "I don't want him going through that."

Rivera and other students said they put more of a premium on diversified schools than do their parents.

They "grew up in a different time," said Audrey Abdon, 14. "They're not used to kids hanging out with a different variety of kids."

Beaumier said she wished Pinellas officials would let students vote on the assignment plan.

"The kids would be against it," she said. "Everybody hates it."

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or Donna Winchester can be reached at (727) 893-8413 or

[Last modified November 14, 2007, 13:00:09]

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