Students from Cockeysville Middle School and Padonia International Elementary School perform dances from a variety of cultures during Diversity Night, held at the middle school March 1. (Rachael Pacella / BSMG)
Hundreds of students and parents united at Cockeysville Middle School Wednesday night to celebrate the cultural melting pot that exists in the surrounding community through education, art and food.
Parents and older students shared information about dozens of countries at stations spread throughout the school, while younger students explored a variety of cultures through hands-on activities, readings and more.
In the library, young women manned displays with information about icons in diversity who they consider inspirational.
On stage, students expressed their roots through dance and music, smiling as they showcased dances from India, Nepal, Afghanistan and other regions.
In the cafeteria, there was food from Sri Lanka, music from Ireland, hibiscus tea from Mexico and other examples of foreign cultures as the region's diverse populations came together to celebrate and learn about their differences.
"It's really cool for us to hold this event," said eighth-grader Mia Boykin of Cockeysville, who added that appreciating the different countries represented in the community is important.
The evening blended a variety of cultures, and its inception was also a mix of ideas. Cockeysville Middle School teamed with Padonia International Elementary School to bring the evening to life. In the past, both schools have held similar events independently. This year when the schools' principals realized the individual events were scheduled for the same time frame, they decided to hold one event together.
Conor Twohy, 18, of Cockeysville, produced and directed films while at George Washington Carver School for the Arts &Technology that have earned him national recognition through the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and a $10,000 scholarship.
The community surrounding Padonia International Elementary School, which feeds into Cockeysville Middle, is diverse. On average, white students are the majority in Baltimore County Public Schools, according to state data, followed closely by black students, while other groups, such as Asian and Hispanic are less than 20 percent of the population.
At Padonia International Elementary, Asian and Hispanic students are in the majority. Students from more than 30 unique cultures attend the elementary school, according to Principal Melissa DiDonato.
Diversity is something that is celebrated at the school, and which Cockeysville Middle principal Deborah Magness said continues to be celebrated as the students move to her school.
Parents at the event said they came to live in the Cockeysville community because they knew other immigrant families lived there, and wanted the support of others.
To learn about the variety of cultures, parents and students volunteered and set up various stations, where they put information about their nations of origin on display. Many stations also offered food samples. In the library, students displayed information about equal-rights icons.
Suba Jeyavijithan, who has a daughter in eighth grade and a daughter in second grade, was representing her home country of Sri Lanka, with a display in the school's cafeteria. She made kesari, a sweet dish made with semolina flour, sugar, ghee and cardamom.
Ved Raghav, a Cockeysville resident from India, set up a table in the library to show off jewelry, games, clothing and musical instruments from her culture. Raghav is from a western region of the country, and was accompanied at the table by fellow Padonia mothers from the eastern and southern regions of India, all of which have distinct traditions, the women explained.
The evening was beneficial because instead of having students do research on countries independently to learn about their classmates, the festival-style event allowed members of cultures to put on display the items and traditions that matter the most to them.
For Raghav, that means the jewelry and bangles married women wear. Among the items Raghav had on display were colorful bejeweled bangles which are made from lac, a resin-like material made from the saliva of insects, she said.
Also in the library, Jeyavijithan's older daughter Abeisha made a board with information about Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, a female education activist who is the youngest-ever recipient of a Noble Prize. Abeisha wanted to provide visitors with information about Yousafzai during the diversity event because of her status as an advocate for gender equality, she said.
Boykin, who is an American with a white mother and black father, made a display to share information about an icon of hers, Angela Davis, a black scholar.
Some teachers with diverse backgrounds represented their heritage during the event. Vania Dos Passos, an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher at Padonia who is originally from Brazil, shared her country's love of soccer, information about indigenous cultures, and colorful festivals such as Carnival.
After observing what one school mentor had started, Towson High School Parent Teacher Student Association President Cheri Pegues has brought a countywide food supplement program called Food For Thought Baltimore County to the school, which provides a free bag of food each week to students identified by school officials as in need.
To Dos Passos, the event provided a sense of stability to students, which she said is needed in the current national political climate. Dos Passos, who teaches second- and third-graders at the school, said recently she has taken steps to ensure her students know they are safe and protected at Padonia.
"I am different too, and that's OK," Dos Passos said, adding that is students "speak a different language, it's not a problem, it's a plus."
One of the highlights of the evening were performances on the cafeteria stage. Middle and elementary students from America, India, Afghanistan, Nepal and other countries all performed dances, speeches or skits to showcase their cultures.
The final performance of the evening was a group of third-grade students from Padonia, who sang "This Land is Your Land" in unison.
At the end of the evening DiDonato and Magness, the principals, said event was very successful, adding that something good had come of what was initially a scheduling conflict.