‘Not only do you belong here, we need you here’

Countryside Elementary School Principal Jolynne Dobson, with a group of fourth-graders, wants every student to know they are welcome

Administrators are celebrating the district’s growing diversity by building awareness through focused efforts around welcoming all, regardless of background, ethnicity, religion or other differences.

“We are passionate about bringing diversity to the forefront here,” said Countryside Elementary School Principal Jolynne Dobson, chairperson for the District Diversity Committee. “We’ve seen more diversity than we have in the past.”

As Byron Township’s population increases, the district’s enrollment has burgeoned and is steadily growing to represent more cultures and racial backgrounds. While Byron Center is still predominantly white, Dobson said her kindergartners this year are more diverse than ever.

According to MI School Data, of 3,976 district students in kindergarten through 12th grade last school year, 3,327 — or 83.68 — percent were white, 231 were Hispanic, 73 were African American, 124 were Asian or Pacific Islander and 197 were classified as two or more races.

In 2002-2003, of 2,756 students district-wide, 2,575, or 93.43 percent, were white, 82 students were Hispanic, 37 African American, 49 Asian or Pacific Islander, one native Hawaiian.

Dobson wants students to hear that all children belong in Byron Center. “We are united as a community, schools, classrooms. We are people. We are all unique and we all bring different things to the table, and we celebrate that with our kids.

“Our mission is to treat people with respect.”

Byron Center High School teacher Christy Tripp hosted a diversity forum with the high school AUA Diversity Club last spring

Because the area is fairly homogenous, many students haven’t been exposed to much diversity and can benefit from learning about it, Dobson said. She thinks talking about it early and often is key to creating a welcoming atmosphere.

“I really think if kids can learn (about diversity) when they are really young, it would be surprising to them that anyone would treat someone differently because they are a different religion or ethnicity.”

Sophomore Gaby Slandreau, a student leader in the high school’s AUA Diversity Club, said she’s glad to see the focus on diversity. “Not many people talk about it,” she said of her peers.

Gaby is Hispanic and French, and said she was raised with an awareness of cultural differences, but meets many people who weren’t. “It has surprised me how little people know about it,” she said. “I would like to see … students understanding that there are more cultures and ways to look at the world.”

The committee, which includes the core group of Dobson, Christy Tripp, teacher Kat Sibalwa and Superintendent Dan Takens, along with other school leaders, is working to define its mission and goals. It’s beginning the year with the production “Victors of Character: A Story of Loyalty, Integrity and the Courage to Make a Difference,” in partnership with the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, at Van Singel Fine Arts Center. The performance tells the narrative of a young Gerald Ford, his friend and University of Michigan teammate Willis Ward, and the 1934 football game that both tested and shaped their character. All district third- through sixth-graders will see the play and have a question and answer session with the cast. A community performance is also scheduled (see information box).

‘Victors of Character: A Story of Loyalty, Integrity and the Courage to Make a Difference

Free community performance
7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27

Van Singel Fine Arts Center
8500 Burlingame Ave. SW

Schools are also tying their Positive Behavior Support Systems — programs that set common language and expectations school-wide — to diversity education. At Countryside, for example, Best Bulldog Behavior emphasizes “Be Respectful, Be Responsible and Be Safe,” which complements being kind to all, Dobson said.

Moving Dialogue Forward

Last spring, AUA members and adviser Christy Tripp, an English language-learner teacher, hosted a Community Diversity Forum at West Middle School for school and community members interested in diversity education and celebrating differences as a means to create unity. It was open to all voices and opinions. Along with AUA, the high school also has a Gay Straight Alliance, which Tripp also advises.

She hopes to host another forum this school year.

Tripp said diversity education touches academia. “I think global competency is extremely important, and sometimes when you are in a not-very diverse school it’s even more important to specifically and intentionally teach global competency,” she said.

Global competency is defined as knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary to navigate and succeed in today’s interconnected world.

Tripp said students benefit from learning about one another, getting out of their comfort zones and being exposed to people of different races, religions, socioeconomics, sexual orientation, and other forms of diversity. “It’s important for kids to rub shoulders with people who are different than them.”

But it goes beyond even that, she said. “I don’t want anyone to feel they are so different they don’t belong here. Diversity is beautiful…You belong here and there is a place for you.”

She continued: “Not only do you belong here, we need you.”

CONNECT

The Benefits of Diversity in School

Fourth-grader A.J. Cooper waves during class at Countryside Elementary School
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. Besides covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network, she writes freelance for the travel industry. Read Erin's full bio

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