When Jenner Elementary mom Betty Thomas first heard about the idea of merging Jenner with nearby Ogden International, her immediate reaction was to pray. “I needed to find out that my son was guaranteed to be a part of this and [would] not be kicked to the side,” she said. “I was just hoping it was not a trick.”
Her suspicions her son might not benefit were based on bad history. When Schiller Elementary was closed, her older children were greatly affected. “My kids were going to Schiller. Then they just kicked them out and sent them to Jenner,” she said. “There was a lot of fighting.” They just dumped the students together.
To find out more about the merger proposal, Thomas came to a meeting of parents from both schools. They were using the Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED) program to learn more about each other and talk candidly about their personal experiences with diversity, oppression and privilege. “At that first meeting, I felt good,” she said, noting that people committed to respect each other’s experiences and viewpoints.
That day she also met Ogden mom Rebecca Wells. With no prior experience in community activism or racial equity, Wells had joined the merger effort a year earlier. “I felt like, if I can make this kind of a big difference in my community, I should,” she said.
Wells had been involved with SEED the previous year and came back for more. “I had never been part of something like this in my life,” she said. “Until I got involved with SEED, I had never really talked to Black people. I wanted to learn more about their experiences and hear their stories.”
Thomas and Wells hit it off right away. “I like how she’s making waves,” Thomas thought as she watched Wells promise parents a ride to make it easier to come to the meetings.
After Thomas got involved with SEED, she found her way into more of the merger preparations. Not everything went smoothly. At one meeting, an Ogden parent argued against the merger, saying that Jenner students would bring down Ogden’s test scores.
“That hurt my feelings,” Thomas remembered. “What helped me with that was the parents, the teachers from Ogden and Jenner—they ate that man up. That man, he didn’t stand a chance.”
Nonetheless, she went home and impressed upon her son, “When you merge, you better give school everything you’ve got.”
The feeling that most parents and teachers were on the same team carried her forward. She attended a public hearing in the runup to final approval of the merger. “I knew after that, it’s not a trick, my son is going to be a part of this,” she said.
“We knew that’s where people were coming from [a place of distrust], because of what had happened to them in the past,” said Wells. People from both communities also expressed fears about safety. Principal Michael Beyer and the combined faculty of both schools have worked hard to address those concerns.
Personally, Wells said she focused on the benefits to both communities without worrying excessively about her own son, Aiden, a 6th-grader. “I knew it wasn’t going to hurt him. My thinking in this has always been about the bigger picture.” At the same time, she acknowledged she has paid a price for getting involved. “I lost a lot of friends,” she noted, adding, “I gained better ones.”
The challenges persist for the larger community, too. Even after 2+ years of planning and thoughtful efforts to bring both school communities together, Wells acknowledged that fears aren’t completely gone. “The anxiety of being tricked and not being told things, is high.”
In the first week of school, those fears appeared when parents bumped up against new ways of doing things, whether it’s changes to drop-off and pickup in front of the Jenner building to make way for the new shuttle buses, or confusion about how to handle registration documents.
For Thomas, the smiles on the students’ faces after the first day far outweighed any stressed-out parents. “After school, they were all walking, talking about the classes. I saw happy faces.” As for the parents, sometimes “they just want something to fuss about,” she observed. “I think they’re going to feel better after a few weeks.”
Thomas shows off a cell phone picture of her 8th-grader, JT, doing his homework on the bus on the way home from school after day one ended. He was so excited when he got his course schedule this year she feared he might have an asthma attack. His schedule includes algebra and an International Baccalaureate course called Individuals and Societies. He said he “feels like I’m in high school!”.
Wells agrees that the students’ excitement is contagious. Her 6th-grader, Aiden, is just as eager to start the new school year. “When my son comes home happy and wanting to go back to school, it exudes confidence.”
Intentional efforts to connect students built the foundations for their first-day excitement. It started with a pen-pal exchange between Ogden and Jenner students, then moved to shadow days and joint outings to the movies and baseball games. Over the summer some families went to an event at the Columbia Yacht Club, where they had a chance to eat, dance and play games together. They also compared notes on teachers. Thomas says one of JT’s new classmates told him, “We can be play brothers.”
That’s a far cry from where they started. “When they started meeting each other, I heard a lot of Jenner students were surprised there were Black students at Ogden,” Wells noted.
During their conversation, both Wells and Thomas fielded text messages from other parents who have first week of school questions. “We’re both trying to engage our communities,” said Wells, smiling at Thomas. “This relationship right here is an example of what can happen if you start talking with each other and respect each other.”
Photo courtesy Rebecca Wells