Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. led the equality movement in the South and made history for his work with minority group rights. But in recent years, students have expressed that they feel underrepresented, unnoticed or unwanted in school because of their race, gender identity, sexual preferences or religion.
“Towards the end of last year, a school climate survey came out which showed that many students, especially those from less-represented groups at West, felt disconnected from the school as a whole,” said teacher Alexei Lalagos.
With inclusion in mind, West High teachers Alexei Lalagos, Maureen Head, Theresa Juhl and Jeff Conner began planning an all new celebration for MLK day that would get every student involved and bring attention to the diversity at West.
“I think it provoked a lot of sadness among teachers to think that hundreds of students are walking through our doors each day only to feel alienated,” said Lalagos.
“I think the lesson just that it is important to acknowledge that even though it is 2018 and we feel that we have come a long way from certainly slavery and Jim Crow south and Dr. King and that sort of thing, we still have a lot of work to do,” Head said.
In past years, teachers were given options to incorporate Martin Luther King Jr. into their class lessons, but since they were not required, many classes continued with their normal schedules. This year, however, all West High teachers were asked to step out of their comfort zone and find a way to honor Dr. King’s legacy in their classroom, through discussions, community service and guest speakers.
Students were able to choose their own schedule made up of any five classes focusing on cultural exploration, community service, race relationships, disability awareness, social justice and other topics relating to the legacy of Dr. King. In addition, all students attended a unity concert put on by the five West High choirs.
The 112 sessions offered to students over the day were all created by teachers and students. Some teachers got the community involved by bringing in guest speakers to present and lead sessions, while others led their own.
“If you’ve got students who are interested and teachers who are more passionate, then that’s a recipe for a really good day, I think,” said Conner.
“Knowing that we had [so many students] and we had to have all of those seats available, I think that everyone stepped up and knew the challenge ahead of us and stepped up to make it happen,” said Head.
The team was proud of the event’s success despite a lower turn out than expected, and they plan to continue to honor MLK day in a similar way next year. West High has claimed excellence as a tradition for decades, and now teachers and administrators are working to make equity a tradition too.
“I want a new tradition here, I want a new celebration for all of us to get behind … My best hope is that people walk out of here with a great experience,” said Juhl. “They’re thinking about something, they’re looking at things differently, they learn a lot, I want them to learn something that they wouldn’t have learned otherwise, I want them to have a conversation.”