With one step into the Children’s School of Rochester (CSR), you might have the urge to ask someone whether or not you just stepped into a junior United Nations.

CSR, or School No. 15, is the most ethnically and culturally diverse school of the Rochester City School District. Of the 286 students that attend the Kindergarten through sixth grade elementary school, on Averill Street, 54 percent are English learners from other countries. Additionally, over 35 different languages are spoken in the students’ homes.

Through the Gandhi Institute of Non- Violence, students from UR have the opportunity to volunteer at CSR. Students from organizations such as my own, UR Hip-Hop, get to mingle and learn from CSR kids on a weekly basis.

“I enjoy seeing such a diverse group of students, from different faiths and cultures,” senior and CSR volunteer Philippe St. Juste said. “I’m happy that the school encourages diversity and tolerance.”

From members of the Unitarian Church to students from the School Without Walls fulfilling their “Local Government” course requirement, CSR has anywhere between 20 to 50 volunteers a year — a unique feature that is pivotal to CSR’s motto.

“Rather than seeing their teacher every day, they get to see these young people who are role models,” CSR Principal and Elmira, N.Y. native Jay Piper said. “Not to say that teachers aren’t [role models], but it helps to shake it up a bit and get different faces in.” Piper added that CSR hopes to foster connections between volunteers and their students. “They get to really connect with our volunteers,” he said. “It means a lot to them.”

Piper, who was a religion major as an undergraduate, is no stranger to being out of his element. When he first graduated from graduate school, Piper decided to study in China. Although he primarily wanted to learn the language there, it later evolved into a full cultural experience that he has been able to use to relate to others to this day. His experience in China was not far off from the adjustments that CSR children have to make when the school bell rings.

Piper, who was a former Director for ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) at the RCSD central office, has also observed the amount of English learning students in RCSD schools surge from 2,500 to 4,000 in less than four years.

As one of the locations that the High Commissioner of the United Nations designates for recent refugees in America, Rochester has always had a large immigrant population. Rochester’s fastest growing population has been families that fled Burma from refugee camps in Thailand, followed by Bhutanese people who flew in from Nepal.

But the myriad of cultures that are represented at CSR sometimes lends itself to a cliquish environment. Naturally, students tend to sit with classmates who share the same native language and culture. There are even some classes that include Hutus and Tutsis, two rivaling populations in Rwanda, while other classes have Palestinian and Israeli students.

Despite their differences, Piper says that their students have generally been able to get along.

“[The students] certainly understand those sociological differences and their parents certainly do,” he said. “But for the most part we’ve been very lucky. We teach them the ‘I Care’ rules and that things are different here and you need to learn to tolerate and respect one another. It isn’t always an easy path, but we try.”

In an additional attempt to break down cultural barriers, fifth grade teacher Lashara Evans decided to spearhead CSR’s involvement in this year’s National Mix It Up Day on Nov. 9.

Launched by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights law firm established in the 1970s, National Mix it Up Day is a day in which students are coaxed to sit next to people that they normally don’t sit next to at lunch. CSR was one of over 5,000 primary schools across the nation that participated this year.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s event, teachers held open discussions with their students about their perception of cliques that exist in their school.

Some of the kids talked about who they saw as “the smart kids” or “the cool kids.” The teachers then spoke with students about the harm and misunderstanding that stems from labeling others.

When Tuesday came around, it was time for the students to mingle.

Traditionally, there is a skit to kick off the program. Last year, a group of students dressed as Goth kids while another group was considered “the brainy” kids.

Last year’s skit started off with the two groups being reluctant to sit next to one another. Eventually, they have lunch together and are surprised to find out how much they have in common.

Tuesday was no different. Under the encouragement of their teachers, students from different backgrounds sat next to one another, leading to yet another successful National Mix It Up Day at CSR.

The day ended with student reflections of their experience of mixing it up.

Next Friday will be yet another opportunity for students and volunteers to mix it up, but this time with a hefty turkey. With their annual Thanksgiving feast, UR volunteers, as well as other schools, get to indulge in a variety of Thanksgiving dishes from different cultures.

In typical CSR spirit, music teacher Cherie France makes sure that her students know the full story of Thanksgiving — including religious persecution in England and the Pilgrims’ near-death experience.

“A lot of schools don’t tell the kids the full history — that if it weren’t for the Native Americans, all the Pilgrims could’ve died,” France told her fifth grade class. “So that’s why I’m trying really hard to tell the true history.”

Following the Thanksgiving story, France shared a Haudenosaunee song that she learned from Running Elk, a Rochester local and a family friend. The discussion ended with a sign language Thanksgiving song that they will perform at next Friday’s celebration.

Every week is special at CSR, and volunteers and administrators are continuing to learn from RCSD’s hidden treasure.

“It’s a great place to be, because you’re here in Rochester, but by learning from these students you are also learning about what’s going on at different parts of the world,” he said. “It’s a unique opportunity.”



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