When students from two vastly different Minneapolis high schools spend time together, will they focus more on their similarities or differences?
That intriguing question was posed by Dion Crushshon, an upper-school dean at the Blake School who teaches a course called “Class and Race in the United States.”
When just five students — all of them white — signed up for his normally larger and more diverse class this spring, Crushshon decided his charges would benefit from an out-of-the classroom — and out-of-the-box — challenge.
He contacted Tom Murray, family and community coordinator at Patrick Henry High School, and proposed a student exchange. Murray jumped at the chance. The school leaders saw a real-world opportunity to talk honestly about race, and for students on both sides to dispel inaccurate assumptions and build bonds.
They began, though, with some undeniable facts. Blake is a private, pre-K-to-12th-grade school with campuses in Hopkins, Minneapolis and Wayzata. Its student body is about 75 percent white, with full-pay tuition at more than $24,000 a year. More than 88 percent of the students at public Patrick Henry, in north Minneapolis, are of color; 90 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Goodwill already existed between the two schools, connected through a decade-long collaboration called LearningWorks. The high school preparation program, a collaboration between Blake and the Minneapolis Public Schools, has nurtured many Henry students.
On April 9, the five students in Crushshon’s race class started their day at 7:30 a.m. with breakfast in the Henry cafeteria. They were greeted warmly by five Henry seniors, all students of color, with whom they would pair up to spend the day attending classes, eating lunch and hanging out at lockers.
Some of the Blake students confessed to feeling anxious at first.
“I felt as though the Patrick Henry kids would view us Blake kids journeying to Henry as a bunch of snobbish, rich, private-school kids trying to empathize with inner-city public school kids for a day, hoping to stumble upon an epiphany about the disparity in education, and then return to the Blake bubble,” said Aliya Feroe.
Mitchell Curran Stauch was “slightly nervous,” but excited to be part of the exchange. Race discussions occur often at Blake, he said, but “as a white student with pretty much only white friends, these conversations tend to be quite abstract.”
Such discussions are valued at Henry, where 44 percent of the students are Asian-American and 35 percent are African-American. “This opportunity provides our students with a personal approach to race,” Murray said.
That personal approach led to some raised eyebrows when, last Thursday, the Henry students spent the day at Blake. Cathy “Cat” Vang was energized by the “freedom” and “privilege” Blake students enjoyed. Anthony Bridges described Blake as “more like college.” Husna Ibrahim couldn’t believe how many students had cars. (Ninety percent of Henry kids have Go-To student bus passes). They spoke of the small class sizes, too.
Blake students were eager to point out differences their peers enjoyed. Feroe was surprised by the driver’s education classroom at Henry, with about 20 car simulators. Stauch was impressed with Henry’s 3-D printer, strong engineering program and “passionate” teachers.
But getting to the potentially painful differences was trickier. Talking about emotionally charged issues of class and race, especially in a limited time frame with grown-ups hovering, is a tall order.
They got the closest during Crushshon’s race class, which began with a 15-minute video titled “Youth on Racism.” Hearing other kids talk on the topic helped them open up.
“A lot of students from the suburbs don’t know what struggle is,” Bridges said. “To have spare money, right now to come up with money for prom, it’s just not easy.”
A nodding Cat Vang said she worked for two months to save enough to buy her prom dress and ticket.
Blake’s Joe Anderson looked pained as he considered the inequality. “For prom this year, I’m not worrying about where my money is coming from,” he said quietly. “My parents are giving it to me.”
Spring break was another eye-opener. The Blake students said they take for granted that they will travel with families and friends. David Rodriguez and Beth Vang of Henry worked through their spring break. Vang was grateful, in fact, that she could work eight-hour days and save more money.
Such challenges, Crushshon told them, can build admirable resiliency, something Blake students also could benefit from. But it can also lead to “anger and sadness, feelings that would be quite natural. How do you at Patrick Henry keep from being buried in resentment?”
Rodriguez said he sees value in hard work. Ibrahim says her family laughs a lot. Bridges said it’s natural to want what others have, “but I wouldn’t hate the person or resent them. The biggest thing is, I know that no matter what situation I’m in, there’s always someone in a worse position.”
So, more similarities or differences? Well, both. These 10 are all smart and empathetic college-bound kids, which means they are well-suited to tackle the less-than-desireable inequities between them.
While the largely cordial conversation led to no great epiphanies, it was an admirable start. Kudos to them. How many grown-ups would leap into a similar discussion?
The schools already are talking about how to improve the exchange for next year. One suggestion is to have the students live in one another’s home for a while. That would be interesting.
But Feroe, a hockey player, and Cat Vang, a hip-hop artist and Hmong dancer, already have a plan. They’re going out soon to eat pho.