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Lessons in Tolerance

Paul VI faculty, students work toward diversity.

Not too long ago, said Roy Hippert, students in his social studies class could not understand the significance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech.

The social climate today is a far cry from the days of the civil rights movement, said the Paul VI High School teacher, making it hard for teenage students to grasp the importance of King and his words. But with a brand-new multicultural club and African-American history class debuting this spring semester, Hippert has found ways to combat the lack of understanding about the civil rights movement among students.

"A lot of kids … just never think about other ethnic and cultural groups," said Hippert. Young people are very tolerant when they are exposed to a variety of experiences, he said, and a large part of the multicultural club's purpose is to give all Paul VI students these experiences.

The club is a year old but already has a strong base of students, he said, with backgrounds ranging from Germany to Pakistan and everywhere in between. Club members sample international food at meetings and take trips to places like the Museum of the American Indian and Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

On one occasion, the club sponsored a school-wide lunch period with Panamanian food. The club has put together a series of video vignettes about students' different cultural backgrounds and, periodically, hangs displays about famous minority leaders in the hallways.

The multicultural club also invites speakers to the school. Last year, Tuskegee Airman Col. Howard Baugh came to speak about his experiences in World War II, as one of America's first black military airmen.

"He was a great speaker," said Hippert. Even though the assembly was voluntary, around 800 people attended, he said. In February, he said, the club hopes to host the Baltimore-based Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order founded in 1829 for nuns of African descent.

PAUL VI SENIORS Saqib Khan, 18, and Gregory Pesce, 17, are the student leaders of the multicultural club. Both Khan and Gregory remember well their experiences as freshmen, when their cultural differences made them feel alone in a mostly white, American school.

"At first, we felt like we were the only ones from a different culture," said Khan, who travels back and forth between the U.S. and his parents' native Pakistan. He is used to people on both sides of the ocean asking him questions, he said. But following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he began to run into the perception by American friends and acquaintances that everyone in Pakistan was a terrorist.

"A lot of kids are not educated about the outside world," said Gregory, who is French. He visits France every summer, and said he sees a difference in the attitudes of American and French young people.

"People [overseas] are really open to learning about stuff," he said. "They have a much more liberal attitude."

But Gregory and Khan said they have all noticed a shift toward openness and tolerance among people their age here.

"People became more aware of what was going on internationally, how other countries are affiliated with the U.S.," said Gregory, and attributes this in part to the Multicultural Club.

Hippert agreed. Some of the change in attitude has to do with increased maturity levels as teenagers get older, he said, but students and faculty seem to accept the need for diversity more naturally than they did 10 years ago.

After Paul VI conducted a self-evaluation a few years ago, said Hippert, one of the goals that emerged was for the school to be more diverse.

Damita Snow, whose son attends Paul VI, said she read about the City of Philadelphia mandating African-American history classes in public schools. She approached the school about the possibility of offering a similar class to its students, and with the help of Hippert and the administration, the class became a reality.

The class will cover African-American history from slavery to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, said Hippert, but will focus mostly on history from the mid-19th century onward.

"By having this class, [Paul VI administration] is practicing what they have been preaching with the kids," said Snow. "Sometimes you have to see something right in front of your face to say that 'Oh, yeah, we can do this.'"

Paul VI's diversity efforts are in keeping with Catholic teaching, said Hippert, since racism is a mortal sin in Catholicism.

Snow hopes that with the African-American history class and the Multicultural Club, students will learn another aspect of U.S. history. As an elective, the class will attract some students out of curiosity and others because of interest, she said.

"The big thing is, as a class, that it will help with teaching tolerance," said Snow.