Strayer Middle School students training as “upstanders”
Nine Strayer Middle School students have been chosen to form a leadership group that educators believe can help lessen discrimination and bullying in school. They are: Dylan Chauhan, Cailyn Cineas, Thomy Codja, Ariana Krum, Nathalia McMillan, Morgan Murray, Brendan Padmanabhan, Shaylen Carmona Rivera and Meghan Steiert.
Nine Strayer Middle School students have been selected to form a leadership group that educators believe can help lessen discrimination and bullying in school.
The students – Dylan Chauhan, Cailyn Cineas, Thomy Codja, Ariana Krum, Nathalia McMillan, Morgan Murray, Brendan Padmanabhan, Shaylen Carmona Rivera, and Meghan Steiert – were chosen by assistant principal Kim Finnerty, who inspired the team’s creation.
“I want to make Strayer Middle School the best it can be,” she said. “Students here should feel safe, comfortable and want to be here. When people don’t feel that way, that’s a problem for me.
“These students have diverse perspectives. They’re different colors, they’re males, they’re females, some are new to the district, and some have been in the district for years. But they’re all here for positive reasons. They have come to this conference with a bunch of other students from the region because it’s really important to learn lessons from the past, and to have an open mind in how we think and deal with each other.”
To help them develop into “ambassadors,” Finnerty brought them to a “Youth and Prejudice: Reducing Hatred” conference for middle school students at Muhlenberg College. The program is designed to connect the atrocities of Nazi Germany to modern-day actions of hate and teach students to be “upstanders” vs. “bystanders.”
Strayer Principal Dr. Jennifer Bubser said she was excited when Finnerty shared her idea to have students attend the conference. “We have been planning for ways to help students learn from one another and grow together by creating a positive culture at Strayer,” Bubser said. “We have many students who are leaders, and our hope is to have our student leaders address issues at Strayer to continue our efforts to help make our community safe and comfortable for all students.”
Prior to the conference, the students listened to a presentation by former Quakertown Community School District librarian Audrey Nolte, whose parents are Holocaust survivors.
Nolte had the students totally engaged in her family’s history, shared photographs and artifacts with them, and asked them questions about how they might handle similar situations today.
“I think a light went on in their heads that they could travel back in time and understand what happened,” Nolte said. “When you teach, you can see when they get it.”
Nolte described Finnerty as “a very unique educator. She still has one foot in the classroom. She understands the heart of teaching and she wants to make a difference. She’s training these kids to stand up, and hoping they inspire other kids to become agents of change to make the world a better place.”
The meeting with Nolte helped prepare the students for the Muhlenberg conference, where they watched a play, “The Library,” that depicted the life of Rachel, a young Jewish girl, growing up in Nazi Germany. Students then participated in a debriefing session with the actors, and breakout sessions to discuss parallel issues of prejudice they have witnessed and experienced in their lives. They later heard from a family member of a Holocaust survivor and keynote speaker, Harrison Bailey, principal at Liberty High School.
In the evaluation of the program, students said that they identified with the main character, Rachel. Other similar reactions emerged. In the students’ own words:
– “Bad things happen when good people do nothing.”
– “If someone is being treated unfairly, I will stand up for them.”
– “Be kind and be an upstander.”
– “Value what you have in life, not what others have.”
– “You have a choice to pick either love or hate.”
“I’ve had an opportunity to take high school students to leadership conferences,” said Finnerty, a former dean of students at Quakertown Community High School. “And I’ve seen the positive impact they can have on their peers. We can do that at the middle school level. There are a lot of parallels from the conference that can be drawn to discrimination our students may have witnessed. I see them as drivers of change, whose ideas to improve our culture here can later be carried to the high school.”
Said Bubser: “This is one example of our work toward our building theme: Spread good ripples through kindness. Be safe, responsible, respectful, and courageous – Be Strayer Stronger.”
Gary Weckselblatt is director of communications for Quakertown Community School District.