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Races Find Harmony if Only for a Weekend

June 19, 1988|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

As year-end euphoria wafted like a breeze across the campus of Mark Keppel High School last week, a handful of students and faculty members gathered on the school's broad front lawn for some hard summing-up of the school year. A bold experiment in human relations in the racially divided school, they decided, had ultimately failed.

Failed? Well, at least Project Harmony, as the program was called, had fallen far short of total success, they said.

"Sometimes we want to gauge our success in yards," said Rudy Chavez, principal of the Alhambra school, where final exams ended last week and students moved languidly around the campus, savoring the last sweet days of the 1987-88 school year. "But in this business, you have to gauge it in fractions of inches."

Keppel is a cliquish school. According to staff members, the school's fragmented student body is a byproduct of rapid demographic changes in the surrounding community, where Asians are rapidly supplanting whites and Latinos.

Student Retreat

The centerpiece of Project Harmony, the yearlong effort to cut through some knotty communications problems among the school's 2,667 students, was a weekend retreat in December. At a camp in the La Crescenta foothills, a racially diverse group of 90 students--using rap sessions and Esalen-style sensitivity techniques--laid their confused feelings about each other on the table and vowed to somehow overcome their differences.

The weekend was to have been the icebreaker to bring the Keppel's divided student body together.

"After the weekend, everyone was optimistic," said sophomore Cuong Huynh. "But as the days passed, the spirit disappeared. People ignored each other. It's sad, after they shared the experience."

"You'll never get rid of cliques," said junior Randy Chen. "It's deep-rooted. No one wants to break the barriers."

'Made New Friends'

But others were less emphatic. Though Project Harmony, which was co-sponsored by the Alhambra School District and the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), produced no tidal wave of interracial chumminess at the school, which has gone from a predominantly Latino school to one that is 60% Asian in just five years, some individuals have begun to cross the racial divide. And organizations were in place to ensure that it could happen more often, they said.

"A lot of my friends are Latinos now," said junior Grace Huang. "People are starting to make friends outside of their cliques."

The retreat began tentatively, with members of different ethnic groups skirting their differences. But after some hard-hitting intergroup sessions, guided by NCCJ facilitators, harsh criticism and misunderstandings spilled out. From conflict, however, came the means to healing. By the end of the retreat, the students were a unified group, brimming with good feelings, hugging each other and clasping hands as they boarded the buses to take them back to their community.

They also were armed with a program, arrived at by consensus. They would start an organization, they said, to reduce culture shock for new students, many of whom are from Asian and Latin American countries. They would work for an Asian "lunar new year dance," to balance other established ethnic events. And they would form a Harmony Club to keep the spirit of the weekend alive.

For the most part, the rest of the student body met the Harmony crowd with indifference. Some were hostile. "They came back as the shining stars, with a lot of publicity for having achieved positive things," said principal Chavez. "When they got back to the campus, some asked, 'How come you were chosen? How come I didn't go?' It was the normal pettiness of kids."

Attempts to organize a club were rebuffed by other clubs. "There are easily 15 clubs of various ethnic backgrounds in the school," said Chavez. "The idea of formulating another club to somehow harmonize these groups was not readily accepted."

The Harmony group succeeded only in organizing a lunar new year lunchtime festival, rather than a dance. "The question came up, 'How dare you even think of having a dance when you're not even a club?' " said Juanita Sales, a bilingual instructional aide who worked with the youngsters.

When the festival organizers, in their new-found spirit of eclecticism, invited a Latino folkloric group to perform, members of the student government criticized them. "We got lambasted for being non-representative with a poor choice of entertainment," said Maria Luisa Barajas, a school librarian who served as co-chairman of the weekend retreat.

Only the Big Brother/Big Sister program appeared to be an unmitigated success. As of last week, 30 students, most of them bilingual, had signed up to smooth the way for new arrivals. "They help the newcomers to know the school," said counselor Clara Wu. "It's very valuable, if you've ever experienced the fear of being a new freshman in a foreign country."

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