FAIRFIELD — Randall Glading gave a command and dozens of squealing and smiling third-graders scrambled under rainbow parachutes, wrapping them around their group like a billowing circus tent.
The Trumbull and Bridgeport students met for the first time in person last Friday after participating in an online Sacred Heart University program intended to expose students from neighboring public school districts to socioeconomic and racial diversity. The program, Classes Without Walls, ran in full for the first time this year and aims to break down racial segregation between bordering districts, a problem particularly acute in Connecticut, but that plagues areas across the country.
“I think it really shapes their concept of other,” Glading said of exposing schoolchildren to diversity. Based on joint research, Sacred Heart education professors Glading and Charles Britton founded Classes Without Walls and first piloted the online learning program locally last year.
The school districts the program has worked with so far — Bridgeport and Trumbull — share a border, but represent drastically different demographics. Eighty-four percent of Bridgeport public school students are black, Hispanic or Latino, compared to 14 percent of Trumbull public school students, according to state Department of Education data for 2015-16 enrollment.
Classes Without Walls ran its pilot with 100 students in 2016, but concluded its 2017 program June 16 with over 400 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders enrolled from Daniels Farm Elementary School in Trumbull and Madison Elementary School in Bridgeport. During the school year, students conduct online learning activities using Google Chat and Chromebooks to collaborate in groups consisting of two to three students from each of the two schools. The crux is a research project; Trumbull students researched the country of origin or heritage of their Bridgeport group mates and Bridgeport students did the same for their Trumbull counterparts.
Students and teachers met for days of celebration and activities June 1, 14 and 16 at Sacred Heart. The students presented on their assigned countries, crafted art emphasizing kindness and did an outdoor parachute activity.
“I think students need to be exposed to diversity. Public schools do the best they can,” Glading said. “They have diversity days, they have food drives, they have Black History Month.
“They do what they can within a normal curriculum. But we felt that with the advent of technology and since every school has to have computers now to test because of (Common Core State Standards),” he said, “why not put them together — have them work together — when otherwise they may not meet someone from a different country or with a different heritage. We just feel it’s important to break down the racial barriers between districts.”
During the June 16 in-person event, two students presented on Albania, describing famous sites, geography and cities, as well as local holidays, food and customs. One bit of cultural history: Albania’s flag, adopted in 1992, features a black, two-headed bird on a red background, the color representing bravery, strength and valor.
Half a world away, Nicaragua was the focus for Valerie Meyerovich. The third-grade student at Daniels Farm in Trumbull knew little about the country before brushing up on the Latin American state.
“I thought it was fun,” the 8-year-old said of the program. She found it interesting to meet “nice,” new people, her group members from Madison in Bridgeport.
Pacifica Caserta, a third-grade teacher at Madison, noted the program’s range of benefits for her students, from learning to use new technology to familiarity with different backgrounds. One highlight was a chance for her students to learn to use Google Slides for their projects. Another was the interest it sparked in others’ backgrounds, as well as students’ own backgrounds.
“It was interesting for them to research other countries that they are not familiar with because in Bridgeport we don’t have that diversity,” Caserta said. “They were researching Italy and Germany and countries that they were not as used to. … It sparked an interest in them to research their own country.”
At students’ request, the class completed research programs on their own heritages after finishing their Classes Without Walls projects.
Caserta, who has taught at Madison for 20 years, felt the ultimate message was that students have more in common than they have differences.
The website Glading and Britton created for their project, classeswithoutwalls.com, offers the resources needed to run the program for free online.
Next year, Trumbull’s Jane Ryan Elementary School and Bridgeport’s Roosevelt Elementary School are likely joining the program. Glading and Britton plan to pitch Classes Without Walls to state officials and expand in Connecticut.
Eventually, Glading hopes their tool can be used across the country to combat the impact of segregation between school districts.