As the student body becomes more diverse, challenges remain for Twins Cities-area schools
WOODBURY, Minn.—Students at Stillwater Area High School greeted Ruth Cherinet with stares when she walked into a classroom for the first time two years ago.
Cherinet moved from school to school throughout the east metro for various reasons. She knew how it felt to be the new kid at school.
But it was different at Stillwater.
The daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, Cherinet was among the school's few students of color, who comprised just under 8 percent of the student body at the time.
That number rose to 13 percent in 2016, but Cherinet said she never quite felt accepted by the time she graduated last spring.
She spent the last few evenings of high school crying.
"I just felt out of place, like I was in a whole different country," Cherinet said. "I didn't feel welcome. For the first couple days and weeks, it was fine, but as the weeks went on, I didn't feel comfortable at all."
She said there was more aggressive hostility, none of which she felt comfortable discussing, but her classmates' subdued social cues served as a powerful form of alienation.
"I don't think they purposely did things like that," Cherinet said. "The school is predominantly white, and there was a new girl who doesn't look or talk like them."
Keith Mayes, an African-American studies professor at the University of Minnesota, said "fear of the racial other" often prompts that type of cold reception.
Mayes provides professional development focused on race and equity to South Washington County Schools faculty and staff, where the percentage of students of color has nearly tripled over 17 years, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
The percentage of non-white students in South Washington County Schools rose from just under 9 percent in 2000 to more than 31 percent this past school year.
Children of immigrants
Maher Mahmood, a Woodbury attorney, said she had a similar experience to Cherinet's while attending schools throughout Washington County.
Born in Saudi Arabia, Mahmood moved from India to Woodbury in elementary school when her father accepted a job at 3M.
U.S. Census data shows more than 13 percent of Woodbury's population are foreign born, with more than half of that population emigrating from Asian countries.
Mahmood had a good group of friends at Lake Middle School and doesn't recall many instances of overt hostility. But subtle hostility — like a book her class once read with negative and stereotypical depictions of Muslims — stands out in her memories.
Her decision to start wearing a hijab in ninth grade prompted questions from classmates — some respectful, some not.
The change required adjustments for both Mahmood and her classmates. They were used to seeing her with an uncovered head, but she said she started to see the exchanges as an opportunity to demystify the hijab and start a conversation.
"It's also about attitude," she said. "There's a difference between asking something genuinely and mocking someone. If people are not comfortable asking these types of questions, we're going to have these ridiculous assumptions about one another."
By talking about her faith and culture, Mahmood said she also built her own self-confidence. The conversation, she said, was often well-received.
"I've gotten to talk to people about my culture, and I think people have appreciated that," she said. "Even though people are passive-aggressive and subtly racist sometimes, they are eager to learn and become some of the best advocates that way."
Needing a tough conversation
As the school district's racial makeup continues to shift, school officials said improved dialogue will help bridge gaps between people of different backgrounds.
The district established its office of diversity and inclusion in the early 2000s to examine where there's room for improvement.
"We want to begin to understand not only the demographic shifts in the country, but what do they all mean," Mayes said. "The question, then, becomes for us to reduce this fear that we have of one another so we can understand who we are."
Trina Patterson, one of seven cultural liaisons with the district, said she strives to build connections among the district's families of color and connect students to role models who look like them.
"It's just having someone they feel who can relate to them and understand their experience, their style, just having that connection and comfort," she said. "It has a very positive impact."
Liaisons also worked with students to organize cultural events at the school, including an African and African-American cultural event.
At the helm of the planning process were students like East Ridge seniors Tre Edgerton and Makheba Nelson.
The event featured speakers and performances by singers and Park High School's step dance team. A speech by Mayes detailing educational disparities black students face resonated with Nelson, who emceed the event.
Although Nelson said East Ridge generally prioritizes and values diversity, she is usually one of two or three other black students in advanced courses.
She said the speech, and the event in general, helped challenge her black peers' notion that her academic ambition boils down to "acting white."
"That's kind of the society we live in — being black means you have to act a certain way," Nelson said.
Certain ways of talking or dressing often attract labels like "ghetto," she said, and some people equate it to being uneducated.
Events like the culture night, she said, combat the stereotypes and harmful ideas that limit perceptions of people from different backgrounds.
Edgerton, who coordinated the roster of performers, said the event offered an opportunity to foster a better understanding among students of different cultures.
He was pleased with the turnout.
The event drew a substantial crowd of students, faculty, staff and parents — many of whom were non-black. That, Edgerton said, was important.
"I think that's why it eventually unites the student body as a whole," he said. "When you understand what people are going through, you're more empathetic, more open and not so quick to judge."