In the social and ethnic stew of Palo Alto schools, students work and play on a daily basis with kids from an array of nationalities, races, religions, ability levels and income levels.
A program used in both high schools and all three middle schools promotes open discussion of those differences in an effort to train students to recognize and refute stereotypes and discrimination.
Next week, for the 12th year, Gunn High School will observe "Not in Our Schools Week," filled with in-class and out-of-class activities to "build awareness and empathy" and to "celebrate and appreciate differences." The theme of the week is, "We're all in this together."
Freshmen will participate in a simulation of what it's like to have a learning disability.
Students from Gunn's ROCK group (Reach Out, Care and Know) formed in response to a series of student deaths by suicide in 2009 and 2010 will post "gratitude displays" around campus.
Students will identify and jot down stereotypes on rice paper, then "dissolve" them in a wading pool or "bury" them in a coffin borrowed from the school theater.
Among the stereotypes recognized and dissolved by Palo Alto middle school students in a similar exercise a few years ago were the observations that, "Not everyone is smart" and "Not all Jewish people are rich."
With enrollment from all over the world and an Asian/Caucasian mix of 45.7 percent and 43.1 percent, respectively Gunn has many teens who say they've felt the sting of stereotypes.
In a posting of anonymous, personal recollections of feeling stereotyped during 2011 Not in Our Schools Week, one student said she'd felt devastated after being called a "half-breed" because of her mixed Chinese and European heritage.
A Muslim student said, "The thing I want is for everyone to stop judging us all based on what only a fraction of our population did."
In a class discussion, a Christian student said he felt like he was a "loner" until discovering that "half my friends are actually Christian."
In response to that discussion, math teacher Gopi Tantod urged students to resist pressure to be anyone but themselves at school. "We are in the United States, and we should be comfortable expressing whoever we are, whatever we are in whatever way we're comfortable with," she said.
Tantod urged students to make a point of speaking to students who are eating lunch by themselves. "Just say 'hi,' because not everybody has been through Palo Alto Unified all their life, and not everybody knows everybody around them."
Thursday of Not in Our Schools week at Gunn focuses on raising awareness about the "silencing that several lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students feel due to fear from name-calling, bullying and harassment" that often occurs in schools. On that day, some Gunn students join in a "National Day of Silence" to call attention to that issue, with teachers notified ahead of time about which students are participating.
Teachers organizing the week's activities at Gunn are English teacher Kristy Blackburn, math teacher Daisy Renazco and visual and performing arts teacher Todd Summers.
Not in Our Schools is a project of the Oakland-based nonprofit media company The Working Group. The group, which produced the PBS series "Not in Our Town," says it combines media and outreach efforts to "battle against intolerance" and encourage democracy and citizen participation.
The group's director, Becki Cohn-Vargas, formerly an administrator with the Palo Alto school district, said Gunn has become a model campus in the national Not in Our Schools effort.
"The kind of acceptance and inclusion we focus on has become part of the daily fabric of their school," Cohn-Vargas said. "They have created a model where teachers in all departments take responsibility for opening dialogue on issues of ending bullying and of creating identity-safe classrooms where all students belong."
Also observing Not in Our Schools next week will be Jordan Middle School, with Assistant Principal Grant Althouse and a team of teachers leading the activities. Terman Middle School held Not in Our Schools week March 3 to 7, with activities organized by Assistant Principal Bhavna Narula and a teaching team. Palo Alto High School (led by student activities director and teacher Matt Hall and student officers) and JLS Middle School (led by counselor Arvind Arya and a team of teachers) will observe it April 21 to 25.