Students at a handful of local schools spent the last year striving to eliminate bigotry and bias from their classrooms.
Six schools within the Philadelphia School District — out of 280 — participated in the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate program, which encourages understanding and acceptance of diversity both within and outside of the school setting.
More than 165 schools in the region participated in the program this year, including Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, Community Partnership School, Joseph J. Greenberg Elementary School, Kenderton Elementary School, Ludlow Elementary School and Martin Luther King High School. Archdiocese of Philadelphia high schools Father Judge and Archbishop Ryan also received No Place for Hate certifications.
The No Place for Hate initiative began in Boston and was first launched in the Philadelphia area in 2001.
Uyen Doan, assistant project director of the local ADL’s No Place for Hate effort, said the program began small, but saw a great influx of participants after it received Gov. Rendell’s endorsement in 2006.
Schools seeking No Place for Hate designation must take several steps to achieve this distinction, such as creating a committee to address issues of bias in the school; encouraging students to sign pledges to work against bullying and intolerance; and organizing at least three activities throughout the school year that seek to educate the school community about the value of diversity.
“The program basically provides an umbrella structure for schools and communities to create and implement their own projects that target bullying, bias and discrimination and teach about the strength of diversity,” Doan said. “One thing we always say is that the strength of the program comes from the fact that it’s driven by the schools — students, teachers, administrators and community members.”
Kristina Diviny, principal of Martin Luther King High School in West Oak Lane, said this is the second consecutive year the school has received its No Place for Hate certification.
“We have enough violence in all of our schools today, and we were looking for an outlet for our students. None of our students are the same, and we wanted to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to connect with somebody else and know that they can feel safe within our building,” Diviny said.
The principal added the school already has a very active gay-straight alliance, which brought in educational speakers frequently during the school year to talk about such issues as domestic violence. Several months ago, students took the initiative and created their own peer-mediation group for students facing conflicts with their classmates.
Doors and windows throughout the school — which has a student body of nearly 1,400 — are now affixed with No Place for Hate stickers, which Diviny said underscore the main principles of the Martin Luther King environment.
“We have four distinct expectations at our school: peace, respect, language and time. It sounds very simple, but we use this in all of our classes as cues to our students that everybody needs to be behaving in a positive manner, including students and teachers, and that there will be consequences for anyone who is not. We want to make sure everyone knows that our school has no tolerance for hate of any kind.”
Vincent Thompson, spokesperson for the School District, said MLK’s participation signifies the school’s ongoing commitment to honoring the diversity of its students.
“This continues the several years of transition that Martin Luther King has been going through to encourage respect and tolerance for the entire student body,” Thompson said. “Over the last five or six years, the school’s done a lot to improve the school climate, and this program has gone even further to involve the students in this initiative.”
Roslynn Sample-Green, principal at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in the Northeast, said her students were also enthusiastic about the program.
This is the first year Benjamin Franklin received its certification, and Sample-Green said the initiative appealed to her because it allows students to gain valuable lessons in a nontraditional setting.
“I looked at the program during the summer and it looked like a fun program for our students, but something that they could really take something from,” she said. “It’s something they could learn a lot from, but it’s packaged differently; it wasn’t from a textbook or a lecture, but rather was something that was very flexible that the kids could have fun with while still learning.”
Benjamin Franklin, which has an enrollment of about 1,100, kicked off its program with a motivational speaker in the fall who addressed the issue of classroom bullying with the student body, and the school followed that up with a parent workshop on Internet bullying. Students also participated in a community-service project where they worked with other community members to beautify the school and, on Memorial Day Weekend, about 350 students and a host of parents attended a multi-cultural event that featured entertainment and educational outlets to raise awareness about the diverse members of the Benjamin Franklin community.
Sample-Green said she’s already noticed a change in the behavior of her students.
“I think this showed them that it’s OK to share how they feel, to tell someone if they hear or see something happening,” she said. “They’re becoming much more willing to talk things out and to try to see what’s going on in the other person’s head and to try to gain a better understanding. We’re finding that instead of going automatically to being extremely angry and jumping to a physical confrontation, they’re starting to take a few steps back and say, ‘Why did you say that?’ and ‘Let’s work through this.’”
Both Diviny and Sample-Green said they’re eager to take part in the program again next year.
“I don’t think our students would let me have it any other way,” Diviny said.
For more information about No Place for Hate, visit http://regions.adl.org/eastern-pa/.