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'A mountaintop that you cannot see': How Lansdowne and Catonsville high schools are striving to recognize and celebrate diversity

'A mountaintop that you cannot see': How Lansdowne and Catonsville high schools are striving to recognize and celebrate diversity
Freshman Nimra Hareem writes on a wall containing messages from other students during the third annual LanScape community arts and culture event May 1 at Lansdowne High School. (Brian Krista/BSMG)

Parya Beiram stood outside the door to "Iran," excitedly asking passers-by if they wanted a pamphlet to learn more about the Middle Eastern country.

The ninth-grader at Lansdowne High School wasn't hesitant about approaching people as they walked by. She wanted the public to learn facts about her home country, including on food and culture, that they would not hear watching the news.

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"Most people think our country is bad, but it's not," Parya said. "It's a beautiful country."

Parya's presentation was part of the third annual LanScape event, held May 1 at Lansdowne. The evening was an arts show with a cultural showcase and, for the first time, a handful of classrooms were transformed into expo spaces for different countries, highlighting from where the families of students at the school have come.

Students, faculty and staff at Lansdowne and another southwest-area school, Catonsville High, recently completed projects or events to reflect and celebrate the growing diversity of their student populations. At Catonsville, it was a weeklong "Diversity Week" celebration and the formation of a new diversity club. At Lansdowne, it was LanScape.

Back inside the Iran classroom was Beiram's family, who had moved to the United States about a year and a half ago, the student said. They were scooping samples of traditional, rice-based Persian cuisine and playing Iranian music.

Parya saw herself on something of a mission when asking LanScape participants if they were interested in learning more about her cultural and ethnic background. "I'm just sharing my country," she said.

Outside the transformed classroom, walking farther down the hall, visitors to Lansdowne could see artwork and T-shirts for sale, all produced by students. They could stop into other "countries," including El Salvador, Myanmar and Syria. Organizers also included community resources, like voter registration.

Two students, Nandini Vaishnav, left and Amina Ahmed, center, hug. Spanish Teacher Molly Kovatch, right, helped the girls organize Diversity Week at Catonsville High School.
Two students, Nandini Vaishnav, left and Amina Ahmed, center, hug. Spanish Teacher Molly Kovatch, right, helped the girls organize Diversity Week at Catonsville High School. (Cody Boteler / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

"We didn't want to do a regular art show, we wanted to celebrate all aspects of our school," said Beth Dentes, who chairs the visual arts department and was one of the main organizers of the event.

About 700 students, parents and community members wandered in and out of LanScape, according to organizers. The year before, they said, about 500 visitors attended.

The night featured opportunities to purchase plants grown by students or chairs and cutting boards constructed by students. Others provided face painting or henna tattoos. In the media center, artwork by students from all of Lansdowne's feeder schools was on display.

"If you Google us, you see all negative stuff," Dentes said. "[Comments like], 'we're poorly rated,' and 'we have a really decrepit falling apart building.' That's not holding us back, that's not who we are. We're a unified school with amazing kids. They inspire me every day with their boldness and their strength."

Leadership and changing demographics

The demographics of schools in southwest Baltimore County are changing, and teachers are looking to recognize and celebrate those shifts. LanScape is just one way that county schools are recognizing the way their communities are changing.

Lansdowne High, for example, has not been majority white since 2013.

According to 2017 enrollment numbers, while white students still make up the single largest demographic group at the school, Asian, black, Hispanic or students identifying as two or more races constitute a combined 776 out of 1,338 students.

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Catonsville High School remains majority white, although the total number of white students has seen a slow but steady decrease since 2012, while overall enrollment remains about the same.

"It is more diverse than it was when I first arrived," Catonsville High School Assistant Principal Eric Eiswert said. "Specifically, with a lot of Middle Eastern and Asian students, it's added a lot of great ways to celebrate [our students]."

The most recent recognition was through Diversity Week in mid-March, which concluded with two assemblies featuring performances and speeches by students highlighting their cultural backgrounds.

Catonsville's Diversity Week was largely spearheaded by two students, Nandini Vaishnav and Amina Ahmed, both seniors whose parents hail from India.

Originally, Molly Kovatch, a Spanish teacher at Catonsville, and world language faculty members were going to organize the activities, she said, because it was her idea to bring Diversity Week back to the school — in part to honor Beverly Hickman, a former assistant principal at the school who retired in 2015 and died in May 2017. She had previously championed Diversity Week, but the program faltered after she retired.

To get students interested in the idea again, Catonsville faculty quickly realized students would be more effective at recruiting other students, especially after Vaishnav and Ahmed approached Kovatch saying they had "so many ideas," according to the teacher.

Eiswert said not a single adult stood on the stage during the assemblies, except when he got up to dismiss the students at the conclusion.

"Kids who are in the audience seeing kids like them talking about the virtues of their culture, I think it makes those kids feel better," Eiswert said. "For the majority population, I think it also makes them more empathetic. I think there's less chance of them buying into stereotypes when they actually see people up on stage putting themselves out there."

Vaishnav said the task at first was quite daunting for two students who had never been involved with anything of the sort. But they were excited to get involved in something that celebrated diversity at the school. "We were the type of kids that sat in the corner of the room and just did our academic work; we never really were involved in activities outside of school, or were leaders, or anything like that."

Shortly after Diversity Week ended, though, and the assemblies were deemed a success, Vaishnav and Ahmed were recognized for their leadership when they were presented with the "Create Your Best" award by the Catonsville administration, an honor rarely given to students. The girls' parents were invited to the school to surprise the students one morning in April.

In the wake of Diversity Week, the girls worked to formally create a Diversity Club at the school, so that next year the event can continue — and possibly incorporate smaller events throughout the school year.

The group has already met this year and selected two students to lead it next year, according to Kovatch and the graduating students.

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"That one event doesn't transform a school," Eiswert said. "But if you're able to replicate it over and over again, that's what can make a difference."

Vaishnav and Ahmed to attend the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and study biology as pre-med students, they said.

At both schools, teachers and administrators said it was important to celebrate student diversity, but also to use those celebrations to remind students that they have a lot in common, and that they are "similar and the same in human nature," Dentes said.

Antonette Lalia, the English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) department chair at Lansdowne, said the LanScape event is important for students to come together and appreciate the "colorfulness" of the school community.

"The best part is that everyone is here," Lalia said. "They're meeting each other and interacting with each other."

The effects of recognizing diversity at both schools hopefully will stick with the kids, administrators said.

At Catonsville, school officials hope the sense of unity and community created by Diversity Week will help draw students together after a highly charged few months that included walk-outs over guns and school safety and "a lot of anger from all different sides" on political issues, according to Eiswert.

"There's not a point where you say, 'Oh, we've done it, we're perfect when it comes to celebrating others' culture,' and we can do exactly what we did last year and we're at the pinnacle," Eiswert said. "It is just constant striving for a mountaintop that you cannot see."



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