Teaching diversity in Arizona’s wealthiest district

By: | July 20, 2015

To teach kids to appreciate diversity in the city’s schools, Scottsdale USD created Unitown and Minitown, programs that create bonds between crosstown students.

During the school year, two annual camps host 15 to 18 youngsters from each of the district’s high schools and middle schools, respectively. Through teamwork and leadership exercises, the programs provide “opportunities to explore the effects of racism and bigotry in our society and to develop the skills to interrupt bullying, prejudice and intolerance on a daily basis,” says David Peterson, superintendent of Scottsdale schools.

“Many times, students from different schools are rivals and will not reach out and develop relationships with other students from other schools. Unitown presents a natural bridge that allows individuals to meet, develop lasting relationships and appreciate each other,” he says.

Unitown and Minitown are part of a wide-reaching effort by Peterson and the district to bridge diversity gaps in the city’s student population, particularly at the socioeconomic level. Scottsdale is the wealthiest city in Arizona, but also suffers from wide income disparity. Ten of the district’s 31 schools are Title I, and 28 percent students get free and reduced-price lunch. While one school has only 1 percent of students on free and reduced lunch, another has 84 percent, says Peterson.

The key to developing a diversity plan is not masking students’ differences, but highlighting them, Peterson says. “Diversity comes in multiple forms. It’s not only socioeconomic, it’s not only physical attributes—it’s lifestyle, it’s religion, it’s language,” he says. “It’s a multitude of things that we need to understand as our district and society evolve.”

Raising money

Another issue the plan tackles is funding. Some Scottsdale schools can raise $100,000 on a one-day golf tournament while others struggle to collect $500 over an entire year, Peterson says. This month the district is hosting a back-to-school event to raise money to help 1,500 students from low-income families buy clothes, books and supplies, and to provide immunizations and physical exams for underprivileged kids who want to participate in after-school sports.

In another outreach effort, parents have donated “healthy packs”—backpacks of food to send home so economically-challenged students can eat well over the weekend. And last December local police officers took such students on Christmas-shopping trips.

The mission is to help all students succeed together: “When kids are well prepared and feel good about themselves, they excel,” Peterson says. “Our mission is to make sure every child is engaged and empowered.”