Rutland Herald: MSJ celebrates diversity among students

posted Mar 13, 2012, 7:37 AM by Bjorn Behrendt   [ updated Sep 11, 2012, 11:26 AM ]
Author(s): Chuck Clarino

Staff Writer Date: March 5, 2012 Section: NEWS01

McDonough Gym was packed with parents, siblings and friends celebrating the
last game of a winning basketball season at Mount St. Joseph Academy. Senior
night at MSJ on Feb. 24 honored its senior athletes and cheerleaders and among
that group were two Chinese students and three African-American students, whose
parents do not live in Rutland or even Vermont.

In lieu of birth parents, each student/athlete called up his host parent, members of
their families, teammates, girlfriends, MSJ faculty and people from the broader
community to stand up with them as they were introduced.

The ceremony was touching and gave one the sense that a true family bond was
created for these students. One could sense the love from the fans, an outpouring of
good vibrations.

The tableau as these virtual families gathered for photos gave one the sense
that this was MSJ's finest hour; that it was truly a loving, giving and supportive
community that has embraced these students as their own.

That feeling stood in marked contrast to what was written in a New York Times
story that appeared in the Rutland Herald 11 days previous. The piece outlined
an undercurrent of resentment, directed particularly to five black student/
athletes from The Bronx, who happen to be accomplished basketball players. No
individuals were named as opponents to the students' presence at the school and
their participation on the team. Instead, the Times mentioned grumblings found on
Facebook sites and blogs.

The message on these sites was that these young black men were taking spots on
the team that should be filled by locals.

The presence of these young men, this sliver of diversity in a predominately
white Roman Catholic school of 95 students, has caused a range of uncomfortable
feelings that erupted when the story appeared in the newspaper. But interviews
with people within and outside the MSJ community suggest something else -
that the presence of students from outside our community harkens a change that

is happening all over America - a growing diversity that each community must
confront and come to terms with.

These young black men may have precipitated change but to many in the MSJ
community it also presents opportunity - not only for the young men, who have
been lifted up and out of a notorious housing project, bereft with violence and
danger in New York, to much better circumstances here - but also for the school
and the broader Rutland community.

"We're looking at a community where 95 percent are supportive and
understanding, the teachers and staff are 100 percent supportive and then you have
some people who don't like decisions that have been made," MSJ principal Paolo
Zancanaro said, referring to the five students. "Naturally, you try to address the
concerns of a small but vocal minority. But the article brought people who support
them out of the woodwork ... there has been a groundswell of support since the
article came out."

Diversity in school

Burlington High School is unquestionably the most diverse high school in
Vermont. It's also a public high school centered in Vermont's largest city in the
middle of Vermont's most populated county. What is interesting is that BHS has
been taking in students from around the world from immigration programs for the
past 30 years, hence dealing with diversity is nothing new.

"We have chosen to look at it (diversity) as a strength, a mindset," said Amy
Mellencamp, principal at BHS for 13 years. "Our school has approached the
challenges and opportunity to work with students from international backgrounds.
We've worked with students from many different cultures and backgrounds to
create community and make them feel part of the school.

"When people arrive from different cultures and backgrounds, there is always
an adjustment time. It's a process and it comes with its share of challenges, some
of which MSJ is facing currently. But it can be a bridge to learning for both the
arriving students and those already in the school."

Mellencamp says some of the ways those students blend in is through athletic
programs, drama and music. The black students at MSJ have bolstered MSJ's
basketball program, meshing with five white local players, which has resulted in a
terrific season - 18-2 and the No. 2 seed in the Division II tournament.

But they have also been involved in music programs, something they say would
have never happened in The Bronx, and recently participated in the schoolwide
concert. They are all good students and are pointed toward college.

Still, sometimes it's hard for everyone in the school community to get to a
comfortable place.

"It's a multiyear journey," Mellencamp said. "Most of the world is mixed up and
as we prepare to send students all over the country to go to college, we adopt a
positive mindset.

"I know MSJ has its financial issues so it's appropriate for them to accept students
wherever they come from; it's sort of a celebration of diversity."

Mellencamp alludes to stereotypes that have been conjured up for a variety of
reasons, especially in a predominately white state and a conservative, working-
class community like Rutland.

"It's hard for a community that thinks about race and culture in one way to turn
around to think of it in another way," she said. "Like I said, it's a journey, but one
well worth taking."

Look to the Future

Curtiss Reed, an expert on diversity issues offers this scenario: It's 2043 and
minority populations have become majority populations across the nation. That is
what the studies suggest will happen as Caucasians no longer hold majority status
in America.

The climate has changed and Vermont is warmer, more similar to what Georgia
was in 2012, which impacts its two major industries, agriculture and tourism.

It is too warm to be the at the forefront of maple syrup production and we can't sell
out-of-staters lift tickets to ski areas because they are closed due to little snow.

"We are no longer selling eggs to the Boston Irish but to Pakistanis and Asians,
who have migrated to the Northeast," said Reed, of the Vermont Partnership for
Fairness and Diversity, a body based in Brattleboro that works with communities
and organizations on diversity, specializing in economic models.

Reed says: "In order to be competitive, we need a work force that is engaged
and multifaceted. It is increasingly multilingual in order to be competitive in the
marketplace. As we go forward, there are fewer and fewer whites in the country.
At this point, Vermont could be doing a better job, in securing its work force.
People are finding it difficult to work side by side and that drags down productivity
and progress."

Hand in glove with changes in the workplace comes change in education so if we
accept the changes that are coming in marketplaces, we also have to accept the
changes in our educational system.

"The case for affirming this is really an economic one, rather than a social or
moral one," Reed said. "I'm not negating the moral case but the challenges around
social/moral issues is that they stem from belief systems that are more difficult
to change (than how it affects the economy). Rutland is in a crisis and we need to
do everything we can to expand the economic base so the entire community can
flourish."

MSJ's slice of diversity

Zancanaro points out the flags from various nations that hang in the school's
entryway - People's Republic of China, Korea, Spain, Germany - represent the
diversity of the students at MSJ. Around the school other flags hang representing
the home countries of former students. Even though the demographics of Rutland
are far different than those of Burlington, MSJ has become a multicultural
institution.

Consider that Irish, French Canadian and Italian immigrants, who were not always
welcomed, built Rutland's Catholic churches. Zancanaro sees the current students
as being another way to expand the community's diversity. Since the Times'
article, the MSJ principal has received numerous emails and letters of support
from former students from near and far; several parents from the community have
stepped up and offered their homes to host students from afar.

"I got a $1,000 check from a person in New York," Zancanaro said. "Alumni have
contacted me from all over the country, who are so proud of their alma mater
for being willing to give some kids an opportunity. It's the best thing that could
happen."

Zancanaro relates that the complaint that these out-of-state students were taking
scholarships from local kids was erroneous: the majority of the scholarships go to
local kids.

"I had a man walk into school the other day, with no connection to MSJ, say to
me, I'd like to do something. What can I do?" Zancanaro said. "I told him that 53
percent of our students are on scholarship and I have to raise $140,000. He gave
me in excess of $10,000."

There are other positives the students bring to the Rutland community. Zancanaro
tells that three of the students are serving in a corporate internship program: one
with the Giancola Company, another with the Foleys and a third with city attorney
Andrew Costello.

Once the Times story hit, a local diversity group met with the black students,
measuring their concerns and assessing their safety, while offering to problem
solve going forward. A meeting is scheduled with Reed and his Partnership for
Fairness and Diversity. Community resources are coming together as MSJ looks to
the future.

"We hope that this program will continue; like so many things in the world, it
depends on funding," Zancanaro said. "When I quoted our mission, it is something
I believe deep in the marrow of my bones, to create an opportunity for the MSJ
community to grow and for the Rutland community to be bigger and better than it
is.

"The way I see it, anytime your arms or hands are more open than closed, you
created opportunity."

chuck.clarino@ rutlandherald.com
Comments