SHARON — Would you rather be peanut butter or jelly? At the question, Sharon high school students stepped to either side of a line on the library floor.
“People don’t judge you if you’re chunky,” quipped one on the peanut butter side. Across the line, another hailed a diversity of sorts: the many flavors of jelly.
Before long the conversation turned serious. Some 100 Sharon High School students, selected as a demographic cross-section of the school, gathered on a recent Friday for a program designed, as an adult leader explained, to make them “comfortably uncomfortable” as they talked honestly and in depth about social divisions.
The topic is particularly salient for a school where ethnic diversity has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade. Nearly one in six students is Asian, for example, compared with one in 23 a decade ago, according to state education data.
Major Asian ethnic groups in Sharon, according to the nonprofit Sharon Pluralism Network, include Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani. US Census Bureau data show the town is also home to the highest proportion in Massachusetts of people of Russian descent, with 14.4 percent.
The influx of new residents has brought more religious diversity as well. Over the last 20 years, growing numbers of Muslims and Hindus, among other groups, have joined already robust Christian and Jewish populations. At last count by the Sharon Pluralism Network — although its executive director, Beth Hoke, said it may not be fully up to date — the town had nine churches, seven synagogues, a mosque, an Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, and more than 160 Hindu families.
The program at Sharon High School addresses more than ethnicity and religion. Students are asked to identify any social divisions they see in the school: cliques, real or perceived judgments about socioeconomics or academic ability, attitudes about drug use, even family circumstances they feel can lead others to not understand them.
As the day progresses, they discuss their own roles in contributing to the school climate and how to work toward change.
Called Teen Speak-Out, the program reaches all 1,195 students at some point in their high school careers, unless they decline to participate. Three times a year, a group of about 100 is chosen for the daylong exercise, and most show up.
At the latest event, on March 15, students split into groups of about a dozen, each with two student leaders and an adult. The student leaders have taken the program and are trained as facilitators; the adults come from the school and community.
“My first session definitely had a lasting impact,” said Kim Chook, a junior. She was selected for the program as a freshman and has become a student facilitator.
When she was a freshman, she had no idea what to expect. She was amazed, she said, that everyone in the group was able to share personal stories and communicate, and she was surprised at how much she told them about herself. No club exists in school where students interact that way, she said.
She said she had previously formed judgments about some of her peers in the small group, but the Speak-Out changed how she viewed them and behaved toward them.
Junior Brian Mukasa said students spend much of their time with the same circle of friends. In the groups he facilitates, he sees they do not always examine why they hold certain beliefs about others. He knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of a stereotype: Students tell him, he said, that he is “not black,” even though he is, because he is not enough of a “sneaker head” or for some other reason.
Tabitha May-Tolub, associate director of a Sharon organization called Youth LEAD, served as lead trainer for the event. One of the first things the small-group leaders do, she said, is show students a diagram of the cafeteria. It gets them talking about how teens group themselves.
Some students start out asserting that the school is not divided, but they may not realize that some of their peers feel left out, she said. In one group a few years ago, she said, a girl who was new to the school revealed that she had eaten her lunch in the bathroom for the first six months to avoid the lunchroom dynamic.
“It led to good conversation about how we sometimes have blinders on,” May-Tolub said.
Students also talk about student-teacher interactions and the desire not to be treated like children, student facilitators said. They meet weekly during the school year and remain facilitators until they graduate.
Senior Marlee Rosenthal called the program “life-changing.” During a discussion of stereotypes her first year, she was shocked by some of what her peers had to say. But she became more and more interested in what was happening in the group.
Several student facilitators recalled feeling taken aback by what they heard, from the enumeration of stereotypes to the personal stories that defied those stereotypes.
Even students who say little but who listen closely begin forming bonds across different cliques, said Aashna Narang, a senior. Some of her close friends would probably not be her friends were it not for the Speak-Out, she said.
The program has evolved over its history of at least 20 years. Marjorie Mitlin, a social worker at Sharon High School and co-advisor for the program, said that years ago the discussions were more issue-based. Students would come up with a list of problems to talk about, whittle it down to a manageable number, and then spend the day evaluating the problems and talking about solutions.
Today, the program aims more at breaking through the veneer students carry. An outline of the day’s curriculum prompts leaders to ask students whether they feel obligated to maintain an image for the school community, their friends, or themselves, and whether they believe others expect certain things of them based on perception. They talk about the “authentic self,” the benefits of having it, how to bring it out in others, and how it can help the school.
One of the most challenging parts of the day, Mitlin said, comes when students address the prompt “If you really knew me, you would know this.” She said it gives them more empathy to see that underneath the surface, everyone has a three-dimensional life.
As the day comes to a close, students return to the full group and relay some of what they have uncovered. Leaders try to emphasize that they are part of a single school community.
“It’s great,” Mitlin said. “It really has an effect on the climate and culture of the school.”
Although the long-term effect of the program is hard to quantify, students take surveys before and after the program that ask them to describe the school climate. Positive words such as “friendly” and “accepting” appear in the surveys more frequently after the program, she said.
Mitlin, who is also involved in the Sharon Pluralism Network, said the organization is planning a Community Speak-Out event for adults in the Sharon community in May.
As diversity grows in Sharon, people from different backgrounds tend to stick together, but the community’s willingness to accept people from different cultures may be what drew them there in the first place, she said.