FEATURE

Alternative Success

A Cincinnati school serves Mix It Up as part of academic life.

There are 73 kids in this school, all booted out of Cincinnati-area public schools for behavior and attitude problems.

Some have autism or attention deficit disorder. Others just have trouble living within the rules of traditional classrooms in traditional schools.

Kids like Tyler Short, a 10-year-old 5th-grader who sits quietly in a corner and, when asked, says with surprising confidence, "I'm just shy. I don't like to mess with people I don't know."

And Michael Stallworth, 12, a 6th-grader who extends his arm with exuberance, aching to answer every question as he shuffles nervously in his chair.

Welcome to Children's Home School in Cincinnati, part of a network of programs providing education, mental health services, early-childhood programs and adoption services.

Kids like Tyler and Michael come here for anywhere from four months to four years, working toward a return to their public school districts while keeping up with regular schoolwork.

In all, 18 different school districts feed this alternative school; some kids travel an hour or more by bus to reach these classrooms, where student-teacher ratios are 8-to-1.

Here, they thrive. And here, they Mix It Up every single month of the school year.

Mix It Up — founded two years ago by Teaching Tolerance, Tolerance.org and the Study Circles Resource Center — is a national program that encourages young people to challenge social boundaries and ostracism. To date, more than 2 million students in almost 7,000 schools have taken part in various Mix It Up programs, including the annual National Mix It Up at Lunch Day.

"There's less fights because of it," Michael says of the monthly Mix events. "You know each other better."

Cincinnati has embraced Mix It Up vigorously, with schools across the urban landscape taking part. Children's Home School, a collection of brick buildings on a wooded campus, is no different.

They started in 2002, when Mix It Up was launched. Cathy Baker, social skills teacher at the school, figured a small school like Children's Home could organize Mix It Up at Lunch events each month, rather than once a year.

So ever since, students here have been Mixing It Up with each other and with other schools and programs, including everything from mainstream public schools to kids who are homeless, disabled and struggling with mental illness.

 

Mix It Up Day, 2003

In November 2003, on the second annual Mix It Up at Lunch Day, Children's Home School students share tables — and grilled cheese sandwiches, Tater Tots, milk and tomato soup — with students from the Children's Home Partial Hospitalization Program, which serves students with mental illness in a therapeutic environment.

Look around the cafeteria, though, and a visitor is hard pressed to say which students are from which program. Most everyone is talking, the room full of sound: scraping chairs, laughter, shouts across the aisle.

"What's that?" one student shouts as food trays are delivered to another table.

"Grilled cheese," answers the boy sitting next to him.

A girl shouts loudly, to no one in particular: "I got milk!"

At a nearby table: "I want your ketchup."

With mock bravado: "Did I tell you you could take my ketchup, Mr. Ketchup Thief?"

There are slips of paper on the tables, conversation prompts: "My favorite color is ???" "My birthday is ???" "My favorite animal is ???" But no prompts are needed for these conversations.

Some students shout across tables. Others lean in, whispering.

No table is coded by color of skin, age of student, physical or mental ability. Everyone has something to say, even Tyler, the shy kid who says he doesn't talk to people he doesn't know, is talking now to another kid about video games.

A boy at another table points across the room: "That's Michelle!"

"No, that's Felicia," the girl next to him responds.

"Michael, this is Robert," another boy adds, introducing two kids who hadn't yet met.

With permission, one boy takes another boy's leftover half of a grilled cheese sandwich. A Tater Tot sticks to the melted cheese. They both laugh. "It's magic," one says, pointing to the suspended Tater Tot.

Other conversations revolve around a loose tooth, whose biceps are bigger, whether sandwiches are better with or without crusts.

Seven tables filled with kids talking and laughing.

Three boys simultaneously smile and plug their noses; a teacher notices but is wise enough not to ask.

Another boy threatens to launch a spoonful of applesauce across the room, playfully egged on by a neighbor. The applesauce stays put, and both boys laugh.

Anthony sits next to Aliesha. When asked her name, he says he doesn't know, but he knows her favorite color is orange and her favorite animal is a gorilla.

And month after month, they'll keep Mixing It Up, learning a few more names, a few more favorite things.