School project aims to break down ethnic, racial barriers

Down in Area Seven of the Los Angeles Unified School District, students are studying age-old subjects - reading, writing, 'rithmetic . . . and prejudice. The three R's, of course, are standard fare. But prejudice comes under the not-so-standard heading of ''Hands Across the Campus,'' a $77,000 privately funded and just-begun pilot project aimed at breaking down racial and cultural barriers in an ethnically diverse school district where more than 80 languages are spoken.

No one expects prejudice to vanish overnight, or even by the end of the school year. The way those involved with program see it, ''Hands'' is simply a beginning.

''It's a good time to start because things really aren't that bad,'' says Area Seven Superintendent Sidney Brickman, in reference to race relations among whites, Hispanics, Asians, blacks, and American Indians on the five high school campuses involved in the pilot.

''Whether things will get worse, I can't say,'' he continues. ''But why not work now to prevent that from happening? . . . Basically, what we're tring to do is give students the skills that will enable them to live and be productive in a multi-ethnic community without hostility.''

Cultural awareness programs certainly are nothing new on high school campuses. ''Hands,'' however, has taken a slightly different approach - putting a good deal of leadership responsibility in the hands of students. And its focus , say project organizers, could make it the first-ever of its kind in the country. This new program will deal head-on with groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, groups that Dr. Brickman says have tried to solicit membership among students on Area Seven's high school campuses.

Although the high schools involved have very few Jewish students, the project is being funded by On Guard, a women's affiliate of the American Jewish Committee. ''Hands,'' in fact, was initiated by Dr. Neil Sandberg, western regional director of the AJC, who was looking for a local way to address a recent nationwide increase in anti-Semitic and Nazi activities. According to AJC research, local arrest patterns show that the highest proportion of acts of vandalism, including incidents such as swastika paintings, have been committed by teen-agers.

''You have to sensitize people every opportunity you have to the fact that we live in a complex world,'' says Dr. Sandberg. ''Direct confrontation with the concept of hate groups in American life is a crucial aspect in the education of young people.''

The project already has drawn the attention of other school districts in the southern California area - and ''Hands'' coordinators are hoping the program will be so successful that the city's school board will want to pick it up on a district-wide basis next year.

In the meantime, though, there is this year's program to work on. ''Hands'' was kicked off in mid-September on a brainstorming weekend retreat attended by student leaders, teachers, and administrators. Of the up to $15,000 each school involved will receive, some money will go to buy instructional materials, while other funds will be used for campus projects like international fairs or tutorial programs for students who speak English as a second language.

Some others ideas that came up at the weekend retreat: cheerleading in various languages, a buddy system for new students, intercampus exchanges, an adopt-a-country week, and a cultural landscaping project.

''I think it's a program that will gradually work,'' says Mario Perez, student body president at Franklin High School and a participant in the weekend retreat. ''It's not something that will change in a month. It will take some time. If you're talking about prejudice, it's not something that you can dismiss as if it was nothing.''

Mario, who came to the US from Mexico in 1973, says ''all the time I've been involved in 'Hands,' one thing has been on my mind: When we get together for programs as different races, I'd rather know first what are our similarities, rather than what are our differences. I'd like to ask: Do you have this problem, too? How do you solve it?''

In addition, school administrators are hoping to duplicate an elective class now taught at one high school - ''America's Intercultural Heritage'' - at the other four schools next semester.

''We want to work with kids to improve what's positive,'' says Area Seven's Dr. Brickman, although he admits the program is ''nothing highly new. It's nothing completely innovative. We've drawn on what's been successful in the past and put it in a slightly different package. . . .

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.