Students spend MLK Day learning about segregation

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008
— Principal Pat Johnson was leery.

The idea ran against years of training and practice: You don’t single out students based on race or ethnicity. Everyone should be made to feel at home.

But Stephanie Kortyna, a fifth-grade teacher at Jackson School, pressed her case: Kids these days don’t really understand how the civil rights movement changed things in this country.

Kortyna’s idea was to separate all the kids in school into three groups: white, black and Hispanic, to show them what segregation was all about, to show them what Martin Luther King Jr. and others civil rights leaders accomplished.

Kortyna convinced Johnson it was the right thing to do.

So first thing on the morning of Martin Luther King Day, teachers brought all the school’s students into the multipurpose room. As the kids filed in, teachers gently separated them into three groups: black, white and Hispanic.

“That’s how it was when Dr. King went to school,” Kortyna told the kids. “You couldn’t even be in the same school. You guys would be in your own school with people of your own color teaching you.”

How does it make you feel, to be separated? Kortyna asked.

“Sad,” said a boy in the white group.

“Mad,” called out someone else.

“Scared,” said another.

“Lonely,” said a Hispanic student.

“How many of you have friends in this group?” Kortyna asked, pointing to the Hispanics.

“How about that group?” she said, pointing to the blacks.

In both cases, hands went up all over the room. Lots of hands.

“If you were going to school during Dr. King’s time, you wouldn’t be allowed to be friends with those people,” Kortyna said.

As the children sat in their separate groups, fifth-graders recited a biography of King and portions of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

“Now we’d like you to get up and sit wherever you want to, next to your friends,” Kortyna said. “Because we don’t have to do that anymore, thanks to Dr. King.”

Kids wasted no time. In a minute or two, the room was fully integrated. Kids were laughing, some of them hugging.

Kortyna put Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday,” a tribute to King, on a boombox, and kids were asked to join hands.

Kids started clapping in unison with about halfway through the song.

“I felt a little scared, because I didn’t want anyone to feel hurt feelings,” Johnson told the kids about the exercise.

“We are all very lucky that there are people like him in the world,” Johnson said of King. “And it is my dream that all of you will work for peace and unity in this world that we live in.”

Kortyna moved here 10 years ago from Dayton, Ohio. She taught in schools in Dayton where she was one of the few white people.

When she came here, she was surprised that so little was done to mark Black History Month, which had been a major event in Dayton.

“Kids here don’t really have a clue” about segregation, she said, which is why she came up with this exercise for her class. This is the first time it’s been done for the whole school.

After the assembly, some fifth-graders said it was an odd feeling to see his schoolmates grouped by race.

“I kind of felt messed up for a second, like everything was wrong,” said Jordan Bliss.

“I was thinking they were going to be kind of sad, because they were being separated from their friends,” said fifth-grader Connor Fanis.

Kids went back to their classrooms, where they enjoyed snack cakes, which, coincidentally, were chocolate-brown and creamy white.

Last updated: 1:12 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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