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Diversity Program Seeks To Bridge Gap

City, Suburban Students Spend Day Together

January 13, 2006
By DON STACOM, Courant Staff Writer

BERLIN -- Thursday morning in the McGee Middle School gymnasium began with tightly clustered sets of friends, awkward glances and some forced chitchat - not unusual for a get-together between strangers.

The sixth-graders from Hartford's Kinsella Magnet School and from McGee dutifully stood in the same room, waiting for a session of cultural diversity activities. The youngsters mostly stayed close to their buddies, though, and paid little attention to the other group.

But talk of TV shows, amusement parks and food changed that.

With a little prodding by Berlin High School senior Paul Griswold, the city and suburban sixth-graders talked with each other about their favorite sports and sodas, then began trading stories of their tastes in music, movies, hobbies and lunch.

"I like pizza a lot, and noodles with olive oil," McGee pupil Kait Willametz eagerly told Kinsella's Jose Jimenez. "Sometimes we go where you see the chicken cooking - Roger's [Marketplace]."

Jimenez quickly answered: "Yeah, we have something like that in Hartford. It's C-Town."

Similar exchanges took place around the gym, and that meant the morning's work was a success for the teachers and Berlin High students who arranged it. The 44 Kinsella youngsters, virtually all black or Hispanic, and the overwhelmingly white contingent of 87 McGee pupils had made a start at friendship.

"They always start out with a little bit of apprehension, wondering what the other school is like," said McGee teacher Alberta Landino, who has helped direct similar diversity activities at the school for eight years.

In April, the McGee pupils will be bused to Hartford, where they'll walk with the Kinsella youngsters on a tour of the Coltsville complex and then have lunch in Bushnell Park. And near the end of the school year, both groups will take an overnight trip to the Nature's Classroom camp in Massachusetts.

The activities are aimed at showing urban and suburban youngsters some of their similarities.

They do team-building exercises under the direction of volunteers from UpBeat, a community service program at Berlin High.

"They're gradually getting used to being with new people," Alyssa Mazzarella, 15, said about a circle of McGee and Kinsella youngsters she was supervising. "My group is starting to talk, starting to ask questions about each other, making eye contact - all the little things you have to do."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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