Marcos program gives students new ability to accept diversity

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In some form or another, diversity issues confront young people all around the world. Now, at Marcos de Niza High School, students are learning how to better understand some of those issues and develop individualized solutions.

In its first year at the school, the Peer Leaders Uniting Students, or PLUS, program focuses on helping students appreciate the differences among them and their neighbors. 

Krista Carr, a teacher at Marcos, said the class has been effective.

“It’s worked very well,” she said. “At Marcos we’re really, really diverse and it gives everybody a sense of belonging.”

She said the program helps students connect and build relationships.

Marcos is the only school in Arizona using the program, which was founded in 1999 by John Vanderburgh, a California teacher.

Carr said the program’s small group sessions and forums give students an opportunity to connect and learn. By conversing and interacting, she said, the students are discovering they have more in common than they realized.

“It has totally changed the way they think,” Carr said. “They were strangers when they entered, and they’re like a family now.”

Racism, harassment, gangs and school safety are issues students deal with daily. Rarely are these subjects discussed in a classroom setting. The PLUS program has given them a place to identify the problems and find a solution.

“It deals with stuff that’s not talked about on campus,” Carr said. “We give them an avenue to actually do something. This program gets to the core issues.”

The education is in the conversation. Students possessing differences in background, race and opinion are learning about each other.

They’re also learning about themselves.   

Jackie Boggess, a senior, said the PLUS program has urged her to look deeper than the surface.

“I judged people by how they looked,” she said. “I’ve learned there’s more to people. I think that really opens your eyes.”

Another goal of the program is to stimulate conversation among students who have never talked before. By opening up to each other and sharing stories, the students have formed friendships, according to Carr.

“I have so many kids in my classroom who are really good friends,” she said. “They have totally changed. My kids have taken it to the next level.”

In February 2007, Carr traveled to California to participate in a PLUS program training course. She came back with positive impressions and said she wanted to bring the concept to Marcos. 

Carr convinced 23 students to sign up for the new program, but wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I thought it would be really hard to have the kids buy into it,” she said.

To her relief, the program has not only been well accepted but has provided a learning opportunity for everyone involved. Carr said she was pleasantly surprised when she noticed her students’ excitement.

“They loved it and took it to heart,” she said. “They kind of learned it with me, but they took it and ran with it.”

Boggess said the program also has made an impact on her life. She sees the world differently.

“I think it is amazing,” she said. “People actually had a good time.”

In recent weeks, PLUS program students have been sharing what they’ve discovered. The students hold forums for 40 random students. In those sessions, the PLUS program students educate the group on what they’ve discovered. Using theatrical play and engaging discussions, the students become teachers.

“They walk the kids through what we’ve done in class,” she said.

Before the program some students may have teased others for being different. In just a few months, they have undergone a change, in some cases coming to the aid of others who are being harassed, according to Carr.

“We talk about if you were in that position wouldn’t you want someone to help you?” she said.

Although Corona del Sol High School doesn’t have plans to implement the PLUS program soon, it could be just a matter of time.

“It’s just going to get bigger,” Carr said.

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