Students at Thurston County’s River Ridge High feel at ease in their ‘family’ of multiple cultures

Russ Carmack/The News Tribune
Derrick Pringle, right, shows his JROTC cadets how to properly position a collar insignia with the help of River Ridge cadets Vincent Aguon, 15, left, and Raul Barfield, 16. A former Army drill sergeant, Pringle is a popular security guard, coach and trusted adviser to the high school students.
Where everyone has a place

By Karen Hucks
The News Tribune

On stage together, their voices were clear and loud against the beat of Nigerian music. Their dance movements flowed and intermingled. Their hands reached toward the sky and touched with a clap.

It didn’t matter that most of the River Ridge High School students – and their parents, fellow students and staff members in the audience – didn’t speak the language of the song, “Funga Alafia.”

The message – “With my heart, my head, my thoughts, I’m greeting you into our society” – was in the air during the mid-November “Steps Into Wisdom” concert.

It was one of many examples of how everyone at the Lacey high school has a place, that students, black or white, Asian or American Indian, rich or poor, talented or not, are a part of the school community.

How a school as big and diverse as River Ridge – about 1,200 students, 43 percent of whom are nonwhite – can feel like a family.

Where last year, student leaders – including one dressed up like a hawk, the school’s mascot – went from class to class, greeting newcomers individually.

Where new counselor Dorene Pinto, who worked previously in Enumclaw and Hawaii, felt welcome immediately.

And where security guard Derrick Pringle got tears in his eyes when he recalled the hundreds of students who crowded around to shake his hand on his first day of work two years ago.

“It touched me,” he said.

River Ridge is a place where parents like Masayuki and Maria Bentz, who want their children to learn to work with a lot of different kinds of people, can rest easy.

“Didn’t you think tonight’s performance was the diversity of the world?” Masayuki Bentz asked after the November event, in which his daughter, Naomi, had sung a solo.

Masayuki Bentz, who is Japanese, and his wife, Maria, who is Mexican, say they wouldn’t want Naomi to go to school anywhere else. And Naomi, who is a junior, said she’s found a place where she’s accepted, where “it’s cool to be Japanese Mexican.”

“Differences create natural barriers,” Masayuki Bentz said. “But the key is to overcome those barriers.”

Bentz works for the state Department of Social and Health Services as an equal opportunity specialist and has visited River Ridge to talk to classes about race issues. Teachers willing to talk about such touchy subjects are part of the school’s success, he said.

“These folks are with it,” he said. “They understand and they value diversity.”

That could be why students say color doesn’t matter at River Ridge. Black students “kick it” with white students. Pacific Islanders share lunch tables with American Indian students. Korean students date Guamanian students.

Jessica Hardy, a white sophomore, said one of her two best friends is of Filipino, German and Spanish descent, and the other is half black and half white. “We’re all from different backgrounds, but we’re so close,” she said.

In addition to forming friendships, students of different races sit next to each other in advanced placement classes and in the student government. They dance together, dream up marketing schemes together and share the spotlight in theater.

“There’s so much diversity,” said Shawn Alexander, a junior who is Korean and white. “You start to look at different races, and it opens up your mind even more. I’ve never felt racism or discrimination at River Ridge.”

There are cliques, but students say they’re generally based on sports or other interests, not color. And even when teens are in a group composed mostly of members of one race, they still mix with those in other groups.

“It’s Utopia,” said Alyssa Meno, a 17-year-old senior who’s Guamanian. “It’s not about race; it’s about who’s friendly.”

And yet, even before it opened in 1993, River Ridge was rumored to be a dangerous, gang-infested school. People called it “Ghetto Ridge” – and worse.

“It was purely because of the number of students of color,” said Thelma Jackson, a former longtime school board member who is black. “It was horrible.”

State-of-the-art school

River Ridge was to be a school of the future, with every amenity to allow students to succeed – in the school community as well as the wider world.

“Beautiful school, state-of-the-art school,” said Jackson, who helped plan River Ridge. “It was a Cadillac school with a full-size swimming pool, fields, technology, library.”

A model for large schools across the country, its unusual configuration – River Ridge is divided into four “houses” – is designed to make students at a big school feel like they’re part of a small one.

The four houses are home bases, where a mix of ninth- through 12th-graders take their core classes and participate in celebrations throughout their high school careers. Each house elects representatives, and those students run for election to schoolwide posts.

Some of River Ridge’s style is catching on locally, too. Within a few years, the district plans to have all high school seniors follow River Ridge’s custom of doing community service.

The school has a college-style campus where students move from building to building in the minutes between classes. There are no bells; teachers and students seem almost instinctively to know when to change classes.

Sitting off Martin Way – a road more suited for automotive shops than a stroll along the sidewalks – the school is a few minutes’ drive from the strip malls and fast-food joints where students head for lunch.

Development, both retail and residential, is springing up all around River Ridge in northeast Thurston County.

Situated in the most diverse corner of the North Thurston School District’s boundaries, River Ridge was destined to have a high percentage of minorities.

The district’s other high schools, Timberline and North Thurston, are 72 and 76 percent white, respectively. At River Ridge, 57 percent of the students are white, 18 percent are Asian, 14 percent are African American, 6 percent are Hispanic and 4 percent are American Indian.

Before the school opened, district board members discussed whether River Ridge would be too diverse. They considered changing its boundaries and busing minority students to other schools, Jackson said. In the end, they opted against moving students out of their neighborhoods.

“Let’s prepare them for the real world,” Jackson told her colleagues. “The real world is multicultural and multiethnic.”

District officials worried that when River Ridge opened students would ask to transfer to another school or another district. A few did. But then something wonderful happened, Jackson said. “By about the middle of the second year, we started getting all these requests to transfer in,” she said. “To transfer in.”

Jackson, whose youngest child, Nathaniel, is a junior at River Ridge, said the turnabout came because teachers and administrators worked hard to build students’ confidence.

“They said, ‘You’re great. Concentrate on being the best you can be.’”

Nevertheless, Principal Georgia Cutburth said there were some problems in the beginning.

“We had kids those first couple of years who have gone on to be hardened criminals,” said Cutburth, whose ancestry is French, German, English, Scottish and American Indian. “But the Lacey Police Department was aggressive from the beginning, and they worked hard to get rid of (gang members). At that time, it was cool to be a gangster, and now kids are saying, ‘You can get killed.’”

Gangs have dissipated throughout Thurston County as the more hard-core members either got killed or went to jail, said Lacey police officer Dusty Pierpoint, an officer assigned to River Ridge.

Besides, the school’s gang problems were never worse than the district’s other high schools’ problems, said police Lt. Tom Nelson, a school board member.

Still, students know they have a lot to do before they can overcome stereotypes.

Earlier this year, at a football game at Shelton High School, freshman Amanda Clayville was in the stands, cheering for her friends on the team.

“Kids kept coming by throwing drinks and popcorn at us and calling us ‘niggers’ and ‘Nigger Ridge,’” said Clayville, who is white. “That’s happened at a lot of the other schools that we play. It made me mad that they were acting so stupid.”

William Yokley, a junior who is black, said students, no matter what their color, came back to River Ridge united.

Yokley said there’s a lot to be proud of at the school – competitive sports teams, strong student clubs and a lot of school spirit.

And students are proud of their differences, said junior Lani Pineda, who is half-Filipino and half-Guamanian.

“We feel that we should overcome that stereotype,” Pineda said. “And we have to stick together.”

“One of our goals is to try to show the community what we do,” said student body president Erik Dulay, who’s a senior and is Filipino.

Students donate to the community food bank and shelters, help grocery store customers carry groceries to their cars and give at school blood drives.

But changing people’s minds depends on more than just organized events.

“It’s just daily things,” said Carrie Moisey, a junior, a Canadian citizen and the student body secretary. “If you’re nice to someone you don’t know, and they find out you go to River Ridge,” it might help them see the reality of the school.

Better all the time

Race relations at River Ridge are getting better all the time, students say.

“When I first got to River Ridge, it was really separated by race,” said junior Naomi Bentz.

It was still an issue as recently as last year. “It was the only bad racial year we’ve had that I remember,” said American studies teacher Gwen Cruz, who has been teaching at the school since it opened six years ago.

Last May, a black basketball player and a white football player had an argument. Administrators saw groups of students divided along racial lines and expelled everyone involved before a punch was ever thrown.

The clash had started the previous weekend when some white students showed up uninvited at a black student’s party and apparently knocked over a fence, Pringle said.

“We thought it was something serious,” he said. Pringle helped mediate the dispute that broke out at school. “They said we took it out of proportion. We did kind of overreact.”

“The school assumes it was a race thing, because they see what they see – a bunch of white people yelling at black people,” said Gary Clayville, a 17-year-old white senior involved in the argument.

But he and other students said the incident was just about two seniors who didn’t like each other. After the incident, however, there was tension between black and white students.

“I did not like it,” said 18-year-old Asia Boone, a black senior. “I felt so horrible.”

In 1997, students were similarly divided after a black boy sexually assaulted an Asian girl at school. Now, students say, they know what doesn’t work and they want a calmer environment. They want everyone to get along.

Even students who admit they prefer to hang out with members of their own race say they still respect others.

“I feel more comfortable with the Latin people because I’m Latin,” said Manny Davila, a junior who is 18. “I love my race better, but I’m not going to put my foot down.”

Soo Kim, a junior, said her Korean friends’ lives are more like hers than are other students’. For example, she said, they have a bond because their moms are stricter than most.

“When I hang out with my Korean friends, we’re all the same,” Kim said.

But similarities aren’t always what she needs. On a recent day, Kim was eating lunch at a table with students from several different ethnic groups.

“I like variety,” she said, smiling.

Discrimination – or not

River Ridge is no place for a racist, students say. There’s peer pressure to accept people and be mature.

“You have to be accepting of everyone or else you’ll be alone,” Moisey said.

Some surmise that River Ridge students are especially good about doing that because so many – some estimate at least half of the student body – come from military families.

They’ve moved around, met a lot different kinds of people and dealt with diversity all their lives.

Consequently, if there’s discrimination at the school, it’s not about race, but about cliques, said 16-year-old Eddie Rodriguez, who is Puerto Rican.

“If you’re a geek, you get picked on,” Rodriguez said.

Michaela Miller, a world literature teacher of European descent, said students learn in her class you don’t have to be a certain color to be persecuted. The Holocaust is a prime example.

“They know that, too,” Miller said. “Because high school is a time when you could be persecuted for wearing the wrong thing on the wrong day.”

Teachers and coaches say cultivating respect and curiosity about other races and cultures starts in the classroom and on the ball courts and fields.

Chris Spivey, coach of the varsity boys basketball team, said the diversity of teachers and coaches helps provide role models for all students.

Spivey, who is black, said black head coaches are rare in the Pacific-9 League that River Ridge joined this year, and the Narrows League, to which Lacey schools belonged last year.

At River Ridge, the wrestling, tennis, football and girls basketball coaches are black, as is the band teacher.

“The kids see that,” Spivey said.

Teachers try to bring diversity to class by using books written by people in different cultures and by depending on students to broaden their teaching.

“You’ve got the whole world here,” said Robbie Todd, a world studies teacher. “I love to travel, but here, the world comes to me. They teach me more than I ever teach them.”

Students have to work together, too. There are no individual desks at River Ridge. Only tables. Most classes employ the Socratic method in which students gather in a circle and debate everything from abortion to how to end poverty.

There’s still work to be done, and some students say the curriculum isn’t diverse enough.

“We only learn about the black inventors in February (Black History Month),” said Sheena Weber, a 17-year-old junior who is white.

Dance teacher Kerri Nichols brings different cultures into her teaching every day by showing students how to use their ethnicity and history when they perform.

For one thing, people from different cultures traditionally dance differently, said Nichols, who is Norwegian.

African dance usually is low, toward the ground, as is American Indian dance, reflecting connections to the earth, Nichols said. Most European styles are the opposite. They use the upper body more to connect to God. Asian dance is detailed in the hands, with little movement from the middle body – where the “self” is located. Hispanic styles use a rolling hip motion, she said.

Nichols encourages her students to use their ethnicity, as well as their interests, in their dance.

Senior Adam Bowens, who is white with an Irish and Dutch background, said his Texas roots and love of country line-dancing influence his dance and singing style. But he’s grateful for fellow students who help him interpret music differently.

“If I went to any other school, I don’t think I would learn as much,” Bowens said.

Lekia Harrison says her mixed, American Indian, German, Indonesian and African American heritage has made her the dancer she is. And Nichols has helped her find that dancer.

“We’ve learned a lot about the spirit and how to use it,” Harrison said. “We all become one person.”

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