“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character —that is the goal of true education.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
MANCHESTER, NH — By 10 a.m. on MLK Day, Canada’s maple leaf was almost dry and Brazil was a few stars short of completion. More than 50 students were scattered around the cafeteria at Hillside, painting flags in unity, and promoting pride.
Transforming ceiling tiles from bland to bold was the main mission for the group of eighth-graders. They could have slept-in on this school holiday but instead opted to report to school as volunteers and cooperate on an art project that celebrates the school’s diversity.
“They named it the MLK Olympic Villiage, and it makes so much sense,” said Hillside Principal Brendan McCafferty. Many of his students are first-generation Americans who have come to Manchester from any one of 40 different countries around the world. Turning a school holiday honoring the life and humanitarian principles of Martin Luther King Jr. into a day of service for fellow students was only fitting.
“This is a very impressive group of young adults. Like Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke for the voiceless, created opportunities for the marginalized and disenfranchised, this group of brilliant others-centered students are thrilled to create this special space where all students, from various countries, backgrounds and home lives, can come together in a space that Dr. King would have been very proud of,” McCafferty said. “These kids are fighting to make things better for others and the community. I am very proud of them.”
McCafferty said the concept of a multicultural-themed recreation center originated from a brainstorming session around ways to make the school atmosphere more positive for students. Bouncing off the success of their morning “advisory,” a time at the top of the school day which allows students to spend some quality time in any number of activities including Ping-Pong, foosball, coding, belting Broadway tunes, wrestling, playing chess — all supervised by a teacher who has a passion for one of those things.
“It’s a way for them to make meaningful connections in small group settings, so no student goes without being recognized by an adult on any given school day,” McCafferty says.
The popularity of game-playing gave Hillside staff the idea to create a recreation center inside the cafeteria, a place where students could blow off some steam after finishing lunch, or teachers could bring their class as a reward for doing extra good work.
The recreation center has been open for about two weeks now and it’s been a big hit with students and teachers alike. There’s an online signup system so that everyone has a shot at some playtime.
“At lunchtime as soon as the kids are done eating and clean their area they’re free to go outside with an adult and play some games or go to the Olympic Village,” which is student-supervised.
“We’re always looking for ways to connect and engage while creating a positive and welcoming experience. It’ not just about the tests and quizzes. This age is pivotal for the necessary social-emotional learning,” McCafferty said.
School Board member-at-large Jim O’Connell was taking in the atmosphere of unity and cooperation as students painted. A longtime fixture at Hillside from his years in the parenting trenches, O’Connell continues to participate in the culture there based on relationships forged over the years even though his kids have long-since moved on.
“The whole idea of attachment, a sense of belonging and pride is very important,” says O’Connell, who knows a thing or two about the topic. Ireland born, O’Connell has lived in the U.S. for 28 years and got his U.S. citizenship last summer, just in time to sign up to run for political office.
In talking with some of the students involved with the project, O’Connell said it’s clear to him that they will carry a sense of pride for their school with them as they move beyond Hillside and out into the community as leaders themselves.
“Positive things like this create a safe space, especially for tweens, a place where they spend time together that isn’t inside the classroom, and away from their parents. There aren’t enough spaces like this and it’s certainly something our community needs,” O’Connell said.
Molly Noon was enjoying a makeshift studio she’d created — tucked in between some tables lying on the floor as she painted an inky silhouette of an Olympic equestrian onto a white ceiling tile.
“I did a lot of tracing over the past few days,” Molly said, explaining the week-long process that led up to the day of service. Ceiling tiles were removed and primed and the student volunteers used projectors to then trace the designs onto the tiles, a painstaking and detail-oriented process, especially for certain flags.
Catherine Mata and Shantel Velez had taken on two of the more challenging flags, Brazil and Egypt. The two worked in tandem, both painting simultaneously, unfazed by the tiny stars on the Brazilian flag, or the even tinier Arabic script on Egypt’s banner.
Ditto that for Asia Ford and Alana Stephen who were conquering Norway and Guatemala.
When asked if they minded not sleeping-in on a school holiday, both girls considered the question as they continued to dab brushes into the colors of countries that will make the world a little smaller for fellow students.
“No, it feels good,” says Asia, the Caribbean-blue flowing from her brush onto the canvas in front of her.
Many hands made light work and as the 85 tiles dried and were replaced in the ceiling, some of the friends had time to listen to music, go upstairs to see what the Americorps group was up to, and style one another’s hair.
Mid-morning McCafferty announced lunch would be arriving around 12:30 — a few dozen pizzas, some Chinese food by request — lo mein, teriyaki, crab rangoon and “those beef sticks,” as well as a “bucket of fries.” There will be enough that you can probably take some home, he said. He also told the students they were “rock stars” for getting the job done faster than anticipated, and promised they would have time to play games before heading home.
McCafferty made the rounds from table to table, answering occasional questions, but mostly marveling at the display of dedication and teamwork that would make any principal proud.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”
He would get no argument from McCafferty.
“What an awesome display of intelligence, character, talent and passion,” McCafferty said.