Although only 23 miles apart, Milken Community High School in Bel Air and Jordan High School in South Central might as well exist in different worlds.
Milken, part of Stephen S. Wise Temple and the largest non-Orthodox Jewish high school in the United States, was founded in 1990. Eight years later, the school moved into a new $32 million state-of-the-art building, which now houses 500 students, all Jewish, in grades nine through 12.
Jordan High School is home to almost 2,300 students, nearly all Hispanic or African American, in grades nine through 12. The high school, the first to be built in Watts, dates back to 1925. Protected by a high fence and barred windows, the school sits next door to the Jordan Downs housing project.
But through a program sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) A World of Difference Institute, students from both schools, including my 17-year-old son, Zack, are learning that they share more similarities than differences. They are learning that people should be judged, as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed on the steps of the Washington Monument in 1963, not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
The students chosen for this program, 20 from each school, begin with a trip to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance. The Milken students then travel to Jordan where, once they warily pass the gated and guarded entrance, they find that it doesn't fit their image of a gang-infested and graffiti-covered inner-city school, that it offers an honors track and educates college-bound students. The Jordan students also spend a day at Milken.
"Students learn their own reactions to prejudice and stereotyping. It's one thing to study in the abstract, another to experience firsthand," says Nancy Schneider, Milken psychology teacher.
She, along with Milken history teacher Fran Lapides and Jordan drama and English teacher Mattie Harris, all ADL-trained coordinators of the exchange program, engage the students in a series of exercises from the ADL's anti-bias teaching guide.
The students talk about times they have been hurt by name-calling.
"I get mad when people call me white boy," says one of the Jordan students, whose mother is Caucasian and father Filipino.
"Sometimes kids call me dirty Persian," a Milken student confesses.
"I don't like it when my brother and sister call me Lite Bright," says an African American student from Jordan, "just because their skin is darker than mine."
They have clearly learned that the adage "Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names can never hurt you" is untrue.
By sharing these experiences in small groups, by talking about times they have said something hurtful or times they didn't intervene, the students learn that they have all experienced pain, prejudice and powerlessness.
They also talk about the biases at their own schools, the conflicts between the African Americans and the Hispanics at Jordan and among the Americans, Russians, Persians and Israelis at Milken. They compare feelings of being excluded when a group of students talks in Spanish, Farsi, Russian or Hebrew.
During the social interludes, as they view the Watts Towers in South Central together or snack on pizza during a lunch break at Milken, they discuss music and clothes, television and movies. They complain about homework, overly strict parents and annoying siblings.
And they discover, as they chip away at the overlay of learned prejudices and stereotypes, that they are all teenagers, full of normal doubts, anger and stress. They discover, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once pointed out, that "most hate is rooted in fear, suspicion, ignorance and pride."
For Milken 10th-grader Jon Kay, ignorance is the culprit. "It's important to realize," he says, "there are other people in the world, and they're not much different. I don't think kids are racist. We just haven't been exposed much."
Shawnta Jones, a Jordan ninth-grader, sees fear and suspicion at work. "People at my school say that Jewish people hate Black people. They say if we see Jews in person, we should turn away. I want them to see this. Jews are just like everybody else. We all have 10 fingers and 10 toes."
The A World of Difference Institute began in 1985 as a campaign by the ADL and WCVB-TV in Boston "to combat prejudice, promote democratic ideals and strengthen idealism." It is now a national program that, according to Julie Flapan, ADL's project director in Southern California, has trained more than 250,000 American teachers in 31 cities and has affected more than 15 million students in public, private and parochial schools across the country.
For teachers Schneider, Lapides and Harris, the goals are twofold: to make the climate at both schools inclusive and respectful and to give the students the strength and skills to combat prejudice peaceably. "If we are going to make any difference in this society, we have to do it on the local level, one on one," Schneider says. "We have to reach the students before rigid ideas set in."
To help achieve their goals, the two "sister schools," as they call themselves, have formed an outreach committee, with five students from each school who meet regularly. Plans are also in the works for more joint ventures, including ADL training for a cadre of students in both schools, followed up with peer training.
And in honor of Martin Luther King Day, all 500 Milken students traveled on buses to Jordan High School, where they were addressed by Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and Martin Luther King III, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Mattie Harris, looking around at groups of students engaged in conversation, says, "I grew up in segregated Mississippi. Who would have dreamed that this could happen, that we could sit down and talk to one another at one table? That's what Martin Luther King wanted -- the realization that we are all our brother's keeper. These kids now realize this."
My son Zack adds, "This program is about more than just breaking down stereotypes. It's about establishing personal relationships."