Cards from A Day of Dialogue (Courtesy the Center for Supportive Schools Facebook page.)

On a beautiful day in late March, students and educators from Mercer County’s nine public school districts gathered in a room at Rider University’s Bart Luedeke Center for “A Day of Dialogue,” an event aimed at promoting conversation, awareness and action around issues of race, gender and class.

This was the third such day in a little over a year organized by Mercer County school superintendents. Each of the county’s 15 public high schools sent a detachment of 10 students and 5 adults to, in the words of the late Robbinsville school superintendent Steve Mayer, “understand on a deep level the power of ‘walking in another person’s shoes’ and the importance of reflecting on our differences as a viable means to bring us closer together.” Mayer wrote that after he attended the first Day of Dialogue, held in February 2016.

The gatherings are the culmination of the county superintendents’ discussions on ways to address social conflict not just within their schools, but also in the world. Whether there has been a rise in hate crimes and race-related incidents in the world recently or not, the 24-hour news cycle certainly makes such conflict seem more prevalent. And, says Steve Cochran, superintendent of Princeton Public Schools, the one place students are not able to really discuss these incidents has been in school.

“We want to change the culture in our schools so that we can have discussions about these kinds of things as they come up in the world,” Cochran said in a recent conversation the Hopewell Express had with several area superintendents. “It’s been a struggle for schools, I think, to have these discussions. As educators, we’re not always equipped to have the difficult discussions about race that our children want to have.”

Thomas Smith, superintendent of Hopewell Valley Regional Schools, said the first priority of A Day of Dialogue is helping both students and educators get comfortable having difficult conversations. “Because nobody really talks about it,” he said. “Our teachers are even afraid to bring these issues up for fear of making mistakes, or having it shared on social media.”

The Days of Dialogue held so far have followed a basic itinerary. Students start the day by getting to know one another. Adult leaders talk about how to have conversations in respectful, safe ways. Once those parameters are established, students are given an opportunity to talk about areas that they see as strengths for their schools, and areas where they think there is room to grow.

Then they come up with some “unspeakables” — issues that create tension in their schools, but which no one was really talking about — and discuss them. Stereotyping, slurs, social class issues and mental health issues are among the taboo topics that student consistently identify.

Crystal Edwards, superintendent of Lawrence Township Public Schools, said they’ve seen a clear progression from the first Day of Dialogue to the one held in March. “We’ve gone from creating a safe space among all of us in the first one, to getting to a point in the third one where the kids walked in knowing they were already in a safe space,” she said. “They were prepared to spend a good part of the day interacting with other students with other districts.”

Edwards said A Day of Dialogue is helpful to her district in building on what they already do with their students. “We knew these ‘unspeakables’ were underneath the surface, but now they are very present, very real and very spoken.”

Smith said the superintendents always envisioned A Day of Dialogue as a progression. “We started out wanting to help kids to understand themselves,” he said. “Then we could reach out and taking on the bigger issues. Now we really want to go more in depth.”

Smith said one thing that has struck him in all the sessions is how aware the students are—not just of the world around them, but also of the fact that these tensions exist but usually go unaddressed. “They realize that there are social boundaries that prohibit them from talking about it,” he said. “They want to get out and tell somebody what it feels like to be them.”

Kids know more about what’s going on around them than people give them credit for, Smith said. “In some ways, because of the access they have to information, maybe they are growing up too fast,” he said.

Edwards said that because she is black, she finds that a lot of things the students talk about experiencing really hit home. “I listen to them talking and I’m taking myself back to where I was as a child, or, to be honest, where I was two days ago,” she said.

But during A Day of Dialogue, she has felt a connection with all the students, from her own schools as well as the others. “Even though they are all from different backgrounds, they all have similar issues,” she said. “You see that empathy develop right there in front of you.”

A Day of Dialogue also reflects the slow shift toward more student-centered learning that is going on in schools today. “I think we recognize that for students to learn, they need to feel heard, safe, comfortable in their own skin,” Smith said. “Having these kinds of conversations is important for their learning.”

A Day of Dialogue has proved effective at giving the students who attend a glimpse into lives outside their own, but there is a greater goal in all of this. At the end of each session, Cochran said, their aim is to give students ways they can take what they’ve gleaned and develop ideas for actions they could take in their own buildings. Over time, they hope to hear from students what they’ve accomplished as a result.

Another goal is to figure out how to roll A Day of Dialogue out to the middle schools. Edwards said her district’s HIB data—HIB stands for harassment, intimidation and bullying—shows that reports of students using inappropriate words are much greater in middle school. Other districts have similar reports. “They say, ‘Oh, we’re just playing,” she said. “They don’t understand that their words have meaning. There’s a need to address it.”

Smith said he can imagine someday giving more than 10 students per school a chance to have this experience. “We have a group of districts in Mercer County that are committed to this work,” he said. “I don’t know anywhere else in the state—or nation—where nine public school districts are sitting around a table saying, “We have to address this.’”