The Sister Schools program is only one of the many new and exciting programs at Venice High this school year. The program partners urban and suburban schools across the district and is designed to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation, and encourage students to disregard any stereotypes. This incredible program all started with brainstorming from Assistant Principal, Melanie Ritter, and when asked to elaborate on how this dream became a reality she said, “This was all a small vision of Principal Jackson and I. The intent was to bring the schools together to decrease any discrimination and increase cultural unity.” With the seed planted in the ground they contacted Mrs. Darby Larkin, Assistant Principal at Booker High School, and from there a handful of selected students from both Venice and Booker High met for the first time on February 7th at the Sarasota School District offcies, and the experience was pleasantly enlightening.
As expected, the students were mildly nervous as this was an entirely new experience for them; neither of the groups knew what to expect or how this would turn out, but their doubts were quickly dashed aside. After getting through the icebreaker games, the students started to open up and relate to each other on a more personal level as the conversations shifted from “What’s your favorite color?” to “Have you ever experienced any form of racism?” By the end of the meeting, the kids were no longer strangers but new friends with an insightful view into each other’s lives. They had successfully broken the walls and let each other in, only to realize that they were not as different as it seemed. Mrs. Ritter explained that the outcome was even better than she could’ve imagined, “It was so exciting to see all the students get together and openly talk about the struggles they each face and then find a way to connect because of it.” Before the kids reluctantly headed back to school, they were asked to put their heads together and create a name for their group that would deliver a strong message. The winner… “BE-NICE!” a clever mash-up of Venice and Booker and a reminder that you should always strive to be kind to one another regardless of where you, or they, come from.
I, myself, have had the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful program, and I love every second of it. Just recently, on March 22nd, we reunited with our friends at Booker High School in Newtown to shadow them in their first two class periods. We got the opportunity to see Booker’s expansive campus, which includes a large obstacle course used by the ROTC program for training and beautiful paintings on the side of each building. I learned a lot from my guide Chloe, a Freshman who happens to be in the amazing Visual and Performing Arts Program (VPA). She showed me the incredible art rooms where some of her own art work is proudly displayed on the walls and I even got my hands dirty in my own little art piece. Then we all had hopped onto a bus and walked around the Newtown community for a fun historical tour, where they learned about the backbone and soul of the neighborhood. I loved seeing how connected the community and the school were, as it is apparent that they are very proud of what they have accomplished.
So what is in store for the program? In the near future, the Booker students will be joining us on Monday, April 16th, which also happens to be on the first day of our Spring spirit week. Not only will they get an opportunity to dress up, but they will also get to tour our school and Venice Avenue for a lesson on our history. “We are excited for our Booker friends to visit the Venice campus and for us all to meet at the Embracing Our Differences on May 4th,” Ritter continued to talk about the plans for the program, “I hope to continue with this wonderful program for many years to come and to watch it grow!”