High schoolers reconvene for discussions on race, bridging divides

By Elisa Crouch St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Feb 26, 2015


BRECKENRIDGE HILLS • Facing peers from 18 area high schools, a panel of students in the Ritenour High School auditorium on Wednesday honed in on racial divisions they wish didn’t exist, but do, and the work they’ve begun to dissolve them.

“Is there hope for St. Louis? I’d say heck yeah,” said Dwayne McCowan, a junior at Hazelwood East.


“As long as there’s hope, there’s a chance,” said Destiny Leonard, a senior at Confluence Prep Academy in St. Louis.

The panel of 14 students spoke to more than 150 teenagers and educators gathered for the second Student Summit on Race, an effort intended to turn such discussions over to youth.

At their first gathering in January, participants from 14 high schools developed action plans for their own buildings, such asintentionally sitting with people of different races to start desegregating their lunch rooms. And at one point, they voluntarily joined tables with other high schools and formed “sibling school” relationships, which have turned into exchanges.

Shortly thereafter, students from the predominately white Parkway North High in west St. Louis County spent a day at the predominately black McCluer High in Ferguson, and vice versa. Students from Seckman High School in Imperial will host and visit Hazelwood East in north St. Louis County. And students from Soldan International Studies High in St. Louis will have an exchange with students at Parkway South in Manchester.

“It’s going to be really different,” said Daisha Brown, a senior at Soldan. “You drive down our streets — just our neighborhoods look so different.”

Other exchanges involve Francis Howell North and Confluence Prep; Ritenour and Maplewood-Richmond Heights; Grand Center Arts Academy and Hazelwood Central.

The Student Summit on Race was organized by EducationPlus, an umbrella organization representing school districts, to focus on racial divides that have been evident in public schools for generations.

But the Ferguson protests after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown sparked an awareness in students about the racial divisions they experience on a daily basis in the lunch room, at sporting events and at assemblies.


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“St. Louis should feel like a home to everybody,” said Darryl Burkes, a Ritenour junior.

But often, it doesn’t, students say.

It’s the reason University City High School students have reached to one of the district’s elementary schools, Jackson Park, to mentor children in hopes of preventing stereotypes from taking root before middle school.

And it’s why about 50 students from Pattonville and Hazelwood West gathered on Feb. 18 to hold their own discussion on race and how to move their schools and their communities forward.

“I hope it becomes more of a priority,” said Katie Wildeberger, a Pattonville senior.

In the audience sat Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven, who asked what the state education department could do to support their efforts.

Jaylen Bledsoe, a junior at Hazelwood West, suggested a Missouri youth council made up of teenagers who would serve as liaisons to the Missouri Board of Education.

Afterward, Joe Pirrie, a junior at Grand Center Arts Academy, said the ideas coming out of the summit needed to involve private schools, and students who weren’t necessarily on the honor roll. He’d like to see it pick up speed and grow beyond the confines of an organized event.

“It takes more than just student leaders to do it,” he said.

After the first summit, four more high schools — Riverview Gardens, Jennings, Webster Groves and Rockwood — signed up to join, and attended Wednesday’s summit.