Seattle girls travel to Yakima and explore a cultural divide

The woes of education are constantly wailing in our ears, so when I heard the sixth graders from Lake Washington Girls Middle School bubbling over with enthusiasm for their recent trip to Yakima, I realized that it was no ordinary trip.

Lake Washington is a relatively little known jewel of a school tucked in the Japanese Language School building between MLK Jr. Way South and South 16th Street just off of Rainier Avenue South.

The student body represents our city's diversity. Respect and tolerance for differing opinions binds them together, but school officials stress the importance of standing up and making one's voice heard. This is not a shy environment.

There is a strong emphasis on contributing to community, and the curriculum is a dream for any lover of humanities: plays visited, plays performed, poetry, and tons of girl power.

There was a strong movement to do away with single sex-schools twenty years ago, perceived as cloistered and narrow-minded environments. Quietly, however, there has been a return to the concept within both public and private schools. Improved WASL tests results, satisfied students, teachers and parents are testimony to an old idea being a pretty good one.

The school artfully stitched together a series of Yakima encounters designed to dovetail with their regular studies, particularly science, history and Spanish as a foreign language. More importantly, the trip was about opening the student's hearts and minds to our neighboring community so close by and yet so different.

Granger Middle School in Yakima hosts a student population of 80 percent Latino. May of these Spanish speakers are children of migrant farm-workers. They graciously welcomed the Seattle sixth graders for a visit to compare each other's school lives. Lake Washington Girls Middle School is a cozy school with 49 students in total. By comparison, Granger has 425 students.

"I will never forget walking through the doors to the gym with the music going and the whole school cheering," said Lake Washington student Camille Pham-Lake when describing her first moments entering the Eastern Washington school. "I couldn't help but to smile. At that moment, I felt so accepted. The kids at Granger didn't even know us, but they cheered anyway."

The Seattle students were invited to participate in classes. Iris Bennett said one of the teachers suggested the Seattle students help her class with their essays. Most kids were embarrassed and didn't let Bennett look at their papers.

"May I read yours?" Bennett asked a wide-eyed boy.

"He doesn't speak English," said a group of kids.

A Granger student quickly stepped in and translated for Bennett. She read the boy's paper and determined, out of all the papers she had seen that afternoon, his was the best. Bennett complimented him with a "muy bien."

More than cultural exchange went on in Yakima. Friendships were forged, and the two schools are now talking about ways to get a group of Granger Students over to do a reciprocal visit here in Seattle.

In addition to the school, two very different fruit and vegetable farms were visited. At the Yakima Nation Land Enterprise, Lehi John recounted their efforts to buy back traditional tribal lands. The students also saw the use of pesticides and started to question the impact that might have on the workers and the consumers.

The second agricultural site visited was the Alvarez Family Farm, which has an organic produce stall at both the Pike Place Market and the Columbia City Market.

SeƱor Alvarez spoke passionately about his vegetables, especially his 85 varieties of peppers. In the end, the girls came away with new conviction to the benefits of organic produce.

Everything about the trip featured multi-layered benefits. While studying the scientific aspects of organic versus non-organic farming, the students learned first hand the challenges of the farming business; of being foreign or indigenous; and the typical working conditions for migrant pickers.

"After this trip, I will never look at apples in a bin in the grocery store the same way ever again!" Seattle student Silke Bachhuber said.

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