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.Continued...