By MATTHEW MEYER | Reporter
Test scores, student-to-teacher ratios—they’re the kind of concrete arithmetic that define every school’s aspirations.
But it’s far more difficult to measure how comfortable a student of color feels among their white peers, or how a gay student feels treated by faculty in contrast to straight classmates.
Palisades Charter High School moved to engage these elusive standards last week, creating a new, full-time position: campus unification director.
It will be the director’s task to develop programs and services that promote tolerance and inclusion, uniting Pali High’s unique student body.
It’s a racially and economically diverse campus with students from 100 zip codes, nestled in one of Los Angeles’ most affluent and least ethnically diverse neighborhoods.
It has served as an incubator for change but also weathered its share of ugly incidents.
Last year, an African-American student went public after discovering that peers had shared a photo of her with a noose drawn around her neck.
In 2016, two Pali High students were arrested in connection with racist graffiti across campus.
Now the school’s newly minted Campus Unification Director Giovanni “Gio” Stewart is being given creative reign to impact a meaningful change in student culture.
He’s worked at Pali High for the past six years as an aide to students with special needs and has also served as a youth pastor since graduating from Biola University.
Stewart has developed a curriculum that he’ll roll out throughout the year.
Rather than a regimented, academic approach, he said his efforts will focus on getting students to connect with their peers directly.
“I want to take the focus off of [our differences] and onto the fact that we’re all human beings,” Stewart told the Palisadian-Post. “If we can help people see that, and give them the chance to have new and positive experiences with each other … then I feel like we can get somewhere.”
That’s the goal of Stewart’s “Hello” initiative, which is already underway.
Students are given class-time to connect with their peers by talking about a simple prompt one-on-one.
The conversations are an opportunity to learn about one another directly from the source, rather than relying on a set of presumptions students might carry with them into an interaction.
Stewart said doing away with these underlying assumptions can work wonders for “disrupting inequity.”
He’s hard at work on a slew of other initiatives, both for faculty and students, to be used during class-time and on schoolwide “community days.”
He has full support from administration: Principal Dr. Pam Magee spoke passionately in favor of creating the position before the school’s governing board approved it unanimously.
Brimming with energy, Stewart told the Post last week that he could already sense a greater connection among students.
He and Magee both acknowledge the effort will have its skeptics—both those who deny a culture problem on campus, and those who say the programs aren’t enough.
But they’re staying focused and patient—it’s all about “small steps,” Stewart said.
In time, he believes they’ll lead to major change.
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