Looks of apprehension were on the faces of 150 Winchester High School students as they entered English High School on McBride Street earlier this month as the first part of an exchange program that included visits by students to each others’ schools.
“It was a bit awkward at first, naturally, but as I got to know people I felt more relaxed,” said Dan Zhang, a Winchester ninth-grader.
Classmate Ashley Grevelink admitted she felt “intimidated” when she walked through the front door. “I’ve read about urban high schools and kind of expected to see police officers everywhere,” she said, standing in line for lunch with her English High pen pal, sophomore Carlos Escarfullery, following a get-to-know-each-other exercise similar to speed-dating.
“I wanted to be accepted,” she continued, “but was afraid of what [English students] might think of me. I had my friends to lean on, and after we began talking to the kids here one-on-one I feel a lot more comfortable now.”
“They looked kind of shy, staying together when they came in,” said Escarfullery, who had been exchanging e-mails with Grevelink for about three weeks as part of the preparation for their visits. “But I’ve found they’re all open-minded and very nice to me.
“Ashley also surprised me when she told me she’d really like to be in a school with different cultures,” he said.
Jameliz Quinonez, a sophomore at English, agreed. “They looked real nervous at first, much quieter than us. I thought they were so different.
“Turns out they’re awesome kids, very cool and show us respect. I talked to my pen pal [freshman Will McCarthy] about a lot of things,” Quinonez said. “He said they were reading a book about racism. I told him you have to experience it to really know racism and the lower expectations that go with it,” he said.
“I want to prove society’s prejudices wrong,” Quinonez added. “This kind of experience helps break down stereotypes. We all have the same issues, problems at home or school. We all go through them to various degrees.”
“Obviously, the biggest difference between us is race, and it’s results,” Zhang said during a separate interview. “In Winchester we may have all the material things we need. But at English they seem more closely knit.”
He went on to say how much he enjoyed the program. “I’d do it again if I have the chance.”
“It’s not just about facilities,” said Quinonez, who admitted he had never heard of Winchester before the exchange. “It’s also about what’s inside you. When [the coordinators] asked us where we thought we’d be in 10 years, all the Winchester students said graduated from college and married. That’s my plan, too. I’m going to major in business.”
“This encounter was very inspiring,” reflected Winchester ninth-grader Alexa Williamson after the second day of the exchange. “Meeting these students gave me a new perspective on life in general and made the topics we have been studying in class such as racial oppression and injustice real to me.”
Classmate Lexy Long suggested holding a reunion of the two groups, adding, “In my opinion, if English High would receive the funding it needed it could increase its scores and get the kids and parents involved. Why are we cutting funds from the schools that need it the most?”
Amanda Gordon, project director for Connect and Commit, a community service and learning program at Winchester, called the exchange “a powerful example for both students and adults,” saying, “This is a foundation that shows they can work together very well.”
Gordon said teachers and coordinators from both schools met several times, setting up pen pals and preparing students for the exchange. Students also read Caroline B. Cooney’s “Burning Up,” a novel about how civil rights problems in the 1950s affected the country.
In a later e-mail Gordon said she and her students are “brainstorming… about post-exchange projects.”
“The main goal of the project is to bridge the gap between the urban and
suburban communities. Most of the time these students are not able to learn about each other because of the segregation in society,” said Marlon Ramdehal, program coordinator at the Center for Teen Empowerment at English High and a 1999 graduate of the school.
“But one or two days together won’t be enough,” Ramdehal added. “The next step for these kids is to learn how to take action by writing politicians, voting and reaching out beyond their own communities. They’re all passionate and can make things happen. It’s really up to them.
“I hope they embrace that, keep up contacts with each other and understand the value of what they have experienced in this program,” he said.
Support for the project came from Learn & Serve America through the Massachusetts Department of Education, the Winchester Foundation for Educational Excellence, the Winchester Community Service Foundation and English’s Center for Teen Empowerment.