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30 students from Willmar, other area schools trade places with those from other districts

Katarina Gazelka, 17, front, a student at Willmar Senior High School, works on a math project Wednesday as Shelby Baker, 18, a “host student” at Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg High School, looks on. Gazelka was participating in a program that allows students from other districts to accompany host students to classes and lunch. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

A group of area high school kids got a chance Wednesday to see what it’s like to be the new kid, at least for a day.

About 30 students from Willmar, New London-Spicer, Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg, MACCRAY and BOLD participated in Mix-It-Up Day and traded places with students from other districts.

The visiting students accompanied host students to classes and to lunch on Wednesday. After classes, the students gathered to discuss their experiences.

The event has been sponsored by the West Central Integration Collaborative and its Youth Culture Circle for several years. The collaborative employs school success coordinators who work in area high schools to keep students in school and on track to graduate.

Willmar Senior High Principal Paul Schmitz spoke with the visiting students and their hosts before they left his school.

The block schedule and the size of the school were major issues.

Some liked the block schedule. They noted that teachers had more time to work with students and answer questions with the longer class periods.

The size of the school was another matter. “I feel like you guys don’t know anybody,” a girl from BOLD said.

“It’s like you’re graduating with people you’ve never met; I don’t know if I could do that.”

Another girl, from KMS, nodded and said, “Neither could I.”

Schmitz, who graduated from a small high school, said he understood how they felt, “but there’s a group for everybody here, if you look for it.”

Later, on the stage of the Willmar Education and Arts Center auditorium, the students snacked on Oreos and granola bars and talked about the visits.

Denise Smith, a school success coordinator at MACCRAY schools, spoke to the students and led them through some get-acquainted exercises before they talked about their experiences.

“We talk a lot about accepting different cultures,” she said, but culture is more than being Swedish or Mexican or Somali.

“Every school has a culture, too,” she said. “It’s not that they do it wrong; it’s just that it’s different.”

The experience of mixing it up was meant to help them understand more about the culture of their own school compared to another one, she said.

“It also gives you the experience of seeing what it’s like to be a new student,” she added. “How awkward did it feel, not knowing anyone?”

The students noticed lots of differences. Some liked the lunches better at the school they visited.

Willmar has larger classes, and the longer class periods let students get homework done at school, some kids said. Others said they preferred their familiar shorter class periods.

An NLS student was surprised at the narrower halls and smaller building at MACCRAY, but he felt the school was more close-knit than his own.

Some kids liked the different class sizes they saw while visiting another school, others didn’t.

Somali girls who visited MACCRAY each had the same reaction, “They only have one black kid there.” They said they liked the smaller class sizes and the shorter-length classes in MACCRAY. They said they felt welcomed there.

Andrea Saucedo, a BOLD senior, said she had a great time at Willmar but didn’t like the block schedule. “I need short classes,” she said, and it felt strange that some of the classes were almost as big as her senior class.

“I really enjoy how they were so diverse,” she said, and because there are so many different types of kids, no one seems to notice someone who’s different.

Andrea and many other students said they were glad they had participated.

Jeanette Oehlers, a school success coordinator at Willmar, said she felt the day was a success.

“For me, it’s about showing the kids there’s more out there, having them get to know people from a different background,” she said.

The program’s reach is likely to be much wider than the group of students who visited other schools, too, she said. The students who met a visitor or went to another school district will probably tell their friends or family about it, and the broader community will hear about the collaborative’s efforts.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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