Sunday, May 16, 2004

At Jefferson Elementary,
diversity comes naturally

Hamilton finds right blend to broaden horizons

By Denise Smith Amos
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Damion Varner
Damion Varner (from left), 8, has lunch with Donnie Barker, 7, and Starneyzia Wilson, 8, at Jefferson Elementary School.
(Tony Jones photo)

HAMILTON - At Jefferson Elementary, diversity is no big deal.

Take it from the Biker Boyz, a group of six third-graders who go to school together, hang out at recess and lunch, and talk wrestling and Yu-Gi-Oh! trading cards. And, of course, they ride bikes together.

It doesn't matter much to them that their club mates are black, white, biracial and Mexican-American. Everybody's welcome, the boys say - except girls.

"We're all good friends," Kahlil Knightsays.

Jefferson, one of the Hamilton city schools, is a rarity in Greater Cincinnati. It boasts a nearly equal balance of black, white and Hispanic students. Whites are nearly 36 percent of all kids, blacks, 30 percent and Hispanics are 32 percent.

Most Cincinnati schools are either overwhelmingly white or overwhelming black, with small percentages of Latinos sprinkled in.

"I like being in a school where you're all kind of mixed. It makes it easier to make friends," says Robert Riley, 9, a Biker Boy who's white.

Since the 1950s, Jefferson has equally blended blacks and whites, mostly Appalachians, principal Mary Jacobssays. In the past five years, many Hispanics have moved to Hamilton for construction and other work, coming from Mexico, Puerto Rico and even Cuba.

About 140 of the school's 425 students, including 50 kids bused in from other neighborhoods, take English language classes, Jacobs says. Some become proficient within a year.

"One of the best things for me is watching my staff make the paradigm shift, from being scared to death and reluctant to have non-English-speaking students, to coming to tell me how fast they're learning and being proud and welcoming of these children," Jacobs says.

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