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HIGH LIFE : Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic . . . and Relations : Ethnic Advisory Forum Creates Harmonious Environment at Irvine High School

March 26, 1988|JOE BELBRUNO | Joe BelBruno, a senior at Irvine High School, is editor of the school magazine, El Vaquero; editor of Your Magazine; a newscaster for KSBR radio, and a part-time writer for the Irvine World News. He enjoys sports and entertainment

With minority enrollments in Orange County high schools on the increase each year, educators are beginning to add to their curricula the fourth "R"--relations, more specifically, inter-ethnic relations.

"Orange County is becoming growingly diverse," said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, which was organized by the Orange County Board of Supervisors to help curb racism, prejudices and biases around the county.

"More and more teachers and students are facing the 'big world' problems like drugs and ethnic-related gangs," Kennedy said. "I think that there is a real value for learning about other cultures in standard curriculum, regardless if the school even has problems."

There has been a 10% increase in minority enrollment over the last eight years in county high schools, according to the California Basic Educational Systems report for the 1987-88 school year. The report also states there is a 39% minority population enrolled in high schools countywide.

With this different form of "growing pains," educators have increasingly turned to improved communications for dealing with strained ethnic relations.

This year marks the eighth anniversary of Irvine High School's Ethnic Advisory Forum, which was formed to create a positive environment for students of all ethnic backgrounds. The group was formed in 1981 by Bruce Baron, a social science teacher at the school, when teachers, parents and students saw ethnic relations becoming strained on the 3-year-old campus.

"People tend to feel very isolated, very alone, and I think it is important to break down those feelings of isolation so that you know there is someone on campus to talk to," Baron said. "Many times the society at large does not encourage communication with ethnic groups. One of our roles at the school is to educate people to communicate. We teach about inter-ethnic relations not because we have great faults, but because building understanding has lifelong benefits."

Members of the Ethnic Advisory Forum meet one evening each month to plan classroom presentations on ethnicity. At these meetings, Baron also prompts open discussions of ethnic issues, which often strike close to home for many members. This, according to Baron, is the most crucial aspect of the group. Students actively tackle ethnic stereotypes, biases, personal experiences and problems through dialogue.

"The meetings we have are very emotional sometimes when we touch on personal issues," said senior Sharon Yim, a three-year member of the group. "It is always a good-will energy that comes from these meetings because the people in (the meeting) wish to help understand one another."

According to Baron, the group grows through a ripple effect. As the group has picked up momentum over the years, others have joined and passed on what they have learned to their friends. The group has grown from 10 to 90 students.

At the meetings, students get a firsthand look at the dynamics of inter-ethnic relationships in a way they may never have experienced before.

"You have people from all walks of life getting together, making it the most representative student group on campus," Baron said. "People from one group tend to stereotype someone from another. Through a ripple effect in the meetings, friendships are made and stereotypes are broken down."

In an effort to open dialogues and promote ethnic awareness with students outside the group, the Ethnic Advisory Forum sends student representatives to address multicultural issues in history and English classes at the school.

One important aspect of the group is its yearly explanation to new students of the significance of the school's 47-foot mural titled "Man's Inhumanity to Man."

The mural, created by 17 Irvine High students--including whites, blacks, Asians and Latinos--was begun in November, 1980, and first hung in February, 1982. The mural's side panels display scenes of violence. In the center panel, people of all ethnic backgrounds come together and hold hands. After much controversy and debate over its hanging, the mural gained a permanent home in the school's library-media center in June, 1982.

"When I first learned about the different meanings of the mural, it brought more of an awareness to racial tensions (of the past)," said junior Eunjoo Lee, a three-year member of the group. "There is so much culture at Irvine that we should expose everyone around us to it. The mural really has the ability to demonstrate and provoke thought."

Another role of the Ethnic Advisory Forum is the production of videotapes that feature teen-agers of different ethnic backgrounds discussing issues facing students today. The videotapes are then shown to other students, who get an opportunity to discuss the ideas presented. Baron believes this is a key to the group's purpose: having students work with other students to get the message out.

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