The topic in Mr. Brodhead's world history class today is ancient Rome. Somebody groans, and two students put their heads down on their desks. But Warren Brodhead presses on. It is 45 minutes before lunch.
Put your desks together if you want to work in groups, he tells them. Liliana Arredondo pushes her desk next to Amy Tran, Oksana Gorodetsky and Ana Langi. One of them produces a wad of green clay, and they start to fashion tiny pizzas. They roll the clay between their fingers while they listen to Brodhead talk about Nero.Who wants to be the next brave volunteer to read a paragraph, he asks the students, most of whom speak English as a second language. Liliana stops rolling the clay, raises her hand, then begins to read. The paragraph is about how Roman peasants lived in squalor, while the Roman aristocracy lived in lavish homes with fish ponds.
Liliana reads with confidence. She has been speaking English for four years now, ever since she moved to the States with her mother and little brother from Mexico. Even before she arrived, her mother had taught her a few English words - table, car, house - some solid nouns to help her feel at home here.
How do you think the poor people felt about living in crummy housing while the rich lived in spacious townhouses with fish ponds, Brodhead asks.
Jealous, says someone from the back of the room.
Would they want to rush out and fight the barbarians, Brodhead wonders. Would they feel a sense of patriotism if that's the way the rich treated them?
It might be an interesting thought, but the bell rings. Liliana gathers up her things and hurries out the door, through the December chill, into the cafeteria. She stands in line for a burrito and some french fries.
The Highland High cafeteria is filled with students like Liliana who don't have cars and can't drive off campus for lunch. Most are freshmen and sophomores; many are Hispanic, Tongan, Vietnamese, black. These are her two best friends, says Liliana, introducing Sophia Ven and Chanthy Moeung. Liliana has Mexican friends, too, but some of them sluff school and that bothers her.
This year Liliana is a junior varsity cheerleader, but she isn't really very close to any white students, she says. This year she feels better about being at Highland, but it hasn't been easy either.
Of course, this is high school, where trying to belong is a constant ache, no matter who you are. But this is also Salt Lake City, where, if you are a student of color, belonging becomes an even more complicated yearn-ing.
There are no seething racial tensions here, no blatant discrimination, very few fish ponds. But scratch the surface, says Highland High principal Ivan Cendese, and you'll often find something else. Indifference. You can grow up in some parts of the Salt Lake Valley and never see anything but white faces until you hit junior high, and sometimes hardly then.
In the Granite School District, over 92 percent of the students check "Caucasian" on school forms. In some east-side schools, the percentages are even more lopsided. At Olympus High School, for example, the term minority is painfully to the point. Only 3.6 percent of the students are non-white. Out of 1,300 students, there are three blacks, 18 Hispanics, six Indians.
In Salt Lake City's three urban high schools, minority students make up a much bigger percentage - between 19 percent and 21 percent. At the three schools, the percentages are nearly equal now, the result of boundary changes and the closing of South High in 1988.
But even though every fifth student is non-white, the blending of races in Salt Lake City's high schools is largely superficial, like paint before it's been stirred. Highland, East and, to a lesser degree, West are whiter- and more divided - than the statistics imply.
At Highland, the students of color tend to hang out in the corridor stretching from the auditorium to the cafeteria, while the whites congregate in the front hall. At East, minority students often hang out on the lower level, while whites - or "woods," as they are sometimes called - hang out on the front steps.
Few minority students belong to the pep club or student government. Few Hispanics or Indians turn out for sports. Few minority students attend football games or even school dances.
By all the standards of success in a modern high school, "if you happen to be Hispanic or black, you could feel, `Gee, I'm alone here,' " says Jim Anderson, principal of Salt Lake City's alternative high schools.
Some of that can be blamed on economics. It costs $300, for example, to join the pep club at Highland, not to mention the hidden costs, says teacher Val Davis - the cost of eight rolls of toilet paper for a midnight adventure, for example, or two dozen cookies for a bake sale.
Davis taught at South High School before coming to Highland. At South, she says, non-whites thought of the school as their school. South was the neighborhood school; Highland and East are in other people's neighborhoods, and their rituals - for now at least - often seem to be someone else's.If you're a student recently arrived from Southeast Asia or Mexico, there are the additional obstacles of language and culture. Maybe you're sitting in your first-period class and it's time for HTVS, the Highland High student TV news, and you hear something about a pep rally or cheerleader tryouts or a girl's choice dance. And you aren't really sure what those things are.
Or maybe you see a poster about a homecoming stomp, and it doesn't seem to have anything to do with your life. Rene Dominguez says that's why Mexican students sometimes tear down the posters or write graffiti on them.
Rene attended an assembly at Highland in September where the entertainment was a slide show, a rapid-fire succession of student faces smiling down from the screen. Every face, says Rene, was a white one.
It's not that the students who plan assemblies deliberately leave out non-whites, says George Henry, a black teacher at Highland. "It's not by design," he says. "But it's also not by accident." What typically happens, he says, is that the student body officers who plan the assemblies "know about 100 kids and don't reach beyond that."
"The Hispanic and black students have the worst time of it," notes Highland principal Cendese. The second-generation Asian students are well-integrated, he says. And the Tongans usually are more accepted, perhaps because most of them are members of the LDS Church, perhaps because there are Tongans on the football team.
"We're not looking to be best friends," says Rene Dominguez. "But there should be the feeling of, when Highland wins a football game, that it's not just a victory for the white kids."About a month ago, because he was sluffing classes and his grades were dropping, Rene was transferred to one of Salt Lake City's alternative high schools. He is buckling down and hopes to be back at Highland for his senior year.
In the meantime, he will be one of a disproportionate number of minority students in the alternative system. There are nearly twice as many non-white students enrolled in Salt Lake District's alternative high schools, percentagewise, as there are at Highland, West and East.
Jim Anderson thinks that's because the regular schools - the schools with the assemblies and the cheerleaders and the football games - are failing to meet the needs of non-white kids. Anderson oversees the Salt Lake District's alternative school system.
"These are bright, bright kids, and they're not given a chance to shine," he says. "The easier it is to get low-achieving kids into the alternative system, the easier it is for schools to avoid being real inner city schools."
Minorities drop out of the regular schools at a disproportionate rate. Non-whites make up 7.6 percent of the state's total student population but make up 14 percent of the state's dropouts. For Hispanics and American Indians, the numbers are even more skewed. Hispanics count for 3.8 percent of the school population but make up 8.1 percent of the students who quit school. Indians are 1.4 percent of the total students but 4 percent of the dropouts.
Minority students sometimes turn to gangs to find a sense of belonging, adds Carlos Jimenez, director of human rights at Salt Lake Community College and a former Hispanic liaison at East High School.
"They're on Mars, on the moon, in a different country," he says about students of color who are bused from the west-side Glendale area to East High School.Last spring Rene Dominguez and several other Hispanic students made an appointment with Highland principal Ivan Cendese to air their grievances. In response, the Highland administration made changes: The school formed a Hispanic Club; encouraged the selection of two Hispanic cheerleaders on the junior varsity squad; formed PASS - Parent Attention Student Success - to encourage minority parents to become involved in their student's education. Students hear announcements of Hispanic Club meetings in Spanish on HTVS.
"I'm telling kids there won't be another assembly in this school unless there's a good representation of minority kids," adds Cendese.
"Everybody's trying as hard as they can," says Rene Dominguez. "They're really trying to keep the Hispanic kids there."
Programs like MESA (Math, Engineering, Science Achievement) help, too, says Richard Gomez, coordinator for the educational equity section of the State Office of Education. MESA helps raise expectation levels of minority students, he says, and helps raise teachers' expectations of the students, too.
"We're trying to give them a leg up. We're also building a foundation so they'll be role models for other kids later on."
Changes are happening in the minds of the white students, too. Student body officer Chris Nelson realizes that just because his dad went to Highland and his family attends homecoming games, other students might not understand these traditions.
"Highland hasn't changed all that much yet to meet their needs," says Chris.
When you're talking about diversity, sometimes you need patience, as East High junior Mary Arnold has learned. "The first day I walked into junior choir this year I said, `Whoa, wait a minute,' " says Mary about being one of only a few Hispanic girls in the class. She had the same feeling, at first, on the Peer Leadership Team.
But being on PLT is a bonding process, says Mary. "I actually got to know them instead of just looking at their clothes. These are people I'll probably be friends with for the rest of my life."It is Tuesday evening. The JV basketball game between Highland and West is already in the second quarter when Liliana Arredondo finally joins the other cheerleaders on the floor. The rest of the squad got rides to the game; Liliana took the bus across town. Two buses, in fact, and since the first one was seven minutes late, Liliana missed her transfer on 2100 South.
Sometimes other kids don't understand that she might have trouble getting to a game on time or to an early morning practice, she says. She knows that some students may be resentful that she and Carmina Castro are on the squad. "They think we didn't deserve to make it," Liliana explains.
She hasn't exactly become best friends with the other cheerleaders. But things are getting better, both on the squad and in her classes, she says.
"Last year, if I tried to talk to someone in my gym class they would look weird at me, like I don't belong there."
But this year, she says, "They're starting to treat us as equals. Everything is changing. It's like a surprise." She and Carmina have taught the other cheerleaders two cheers in Spanish, and even though Liliana is disappointed that the squad doesn't actually perform the cheers at games, she thinks maybe the others can now appreciate how hard it is to do a cheer when the language isn't your own.
Liliana stands in line with the other cheerleaders on the sideline of the gym. It is almost the end of the game.
"WE ARE PROUD OF YOU," she chants with the others, looking toward the white boys moving down the court.
"SAY, WE ARE PROUD OF YOU, HEY, HEY."
She raises her hand in a victory fist. "GO HIGHLAND!"