- Associated Press - Sunday, November 16, 2014

WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) - Students from different high schools often look at each other as rivals.

But a group of Cedar Valley students is hoping they and their peers can learn about diversity by reaching out across school boundaries.

About 25 students from Cedar Falls, Columbus, East, Waverly-Shell Rock and West high schools first met last spring with the idea of planning service projects or activities. They’re expecting to meet a number of times throughout the year as part of the Operation Exchange program, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (https://bit.ly/1BhEdsR ) reported.

It’s an approach that brings students from smaller schools in contact with those from urban areas that are more racially and ethnically diverse. That’s not only a learning experience for the small school students, though. Urban students are also being exposed to diversity when they meet kids who live in rural communities and on farms.

“A whole lot of good comes from getting together,” said Selena Collier, an East High School sophomore. She joined the group after being recommended by her principal.

“I think learning about others’ backgrounds and cultures, it makes you a lot more adaptable to other things in life,” said Joanna Badaczewska, a senior at West High School.

Columbus High senior Jake Weber said the program is a good extension of Medley, the diversity group he’s part of at his school.

“Through this we can get rid of the rivals,” said Hannah Smith, a West sophomore.

“I just hope to make a lot of new friends” through the program, said Bianca Frazier, another West sophomore.

The program started after local diversity supporters got in touch with Waterloo Community Schools’ officials. Among those were long time civil rights activist Anna Mae Weems and Jeff Zaputil, chief financial officer for Dan Deery Motor Co.

“Last year, about January, we started formulating the idea about how could we get beyond a one-time ‘sit and get’ and then we don’t see you again,” said Tara Thomas, director of school and community relations for the Waterloo district, referencing how student diversity exchanges sometimes occur between schools.

“It was borne out of Anna Mae hearing from some surrounding districts that we want more diversity opportunities,” said Thomas, who said they hope to expand the effort to more districts as it gets off the ground. Zaputil had worked with Weems in the past to promote diversity and wanted to support this effort.

His company has supported the traveling exhibit “Dan Deery Presents: History with an African-American Emphasis.” In February, Zaputil funded an African American book donation to Waterloo’s school libraries after attending an Urban Potential seminar lead by Weems.

Weems believes that as students build relationships, racial and ethnic tensions will start to disappear.

“They fear each other because they don’t know each other,” she said, referencing the August police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and subsequent racially driven protests and riots. “We want to make sure we don’t have the kind of element that creates that situation.”

While Weems and Zaputil provided the impetus along with officials from the participating schools, the students will take the lead. “We wanted the kids to be empowered to come up with joint projects,” said Thomas. When the students meet, they will develop ideas intended to bring together larger groups of students from their schools.

They’ve already done one service project that came about through Weems’ connections.

A number of the students gathered around the start of the school year to sort the 1,500 copies of the DVD “The Journey of Henry Box Brown,” an animated tale based on a true story. It’s about an escaping slave who stowed away in a wooden crate traveling to the Northern states.

The DVDs, which are aimed at children up to 8 years old, will be distributed to the appropriate classrooms in their districts. Copies will also be handed out to first-year University of Northern Iowa students training to be teachers.

Waterloo Schools received the DVDs free from the nonprofit Sweet Blackberry Foundation, which is run by Karyn Parsons, an actress best known for her role in the long running TV show “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” Their connection to the foundation was Tseheynesh Abebe, Weems’ granddaughter, who works in President Barack Obama’s administration.


Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, https://www.wcfcourier.com

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