Colonel Gray High School has some lessons to learn – and teach – about diversity.
And the Charlottetown school is facing them head-on with a special professional development day this week and a project that honours countries from around the world.
With about one-third of the world’s countries represented in its student body, the diverse population at the school is something to celebrate, but also comes with its challenges.
Recently, its administration took the unusual step of asking the minister of education to grant Colonel Gray its own professional development day to work through some of the obstacles that have recently arisen at the school in the city's centre, including a short-lived brawl that took place in October and has resulted in criminal charges for one student.
The PD day will take place Wednesday for school faculty and staff, followed by workshops for the student population in the days ahead.
“I’ve been teaching at Colonel Gray for 20 years, and our population has become significantly more diverse,” said Suzanne Lee, math teacher and adviser for the school's Key Club. “We are the most diverse school. No question.”
Lee and a group of student volunteers were thinking about the many cultures in the student body long before this week's PD day was on the schedule. Since October, they've been surveying their classmates to find out where they or their parents were born and ordering the national flags.
Lee said it was quite a process getting the flags of 57 countries up there. First, they had to be purchased, which cost about $1,200.
“Flags are not cheap.”
The project was made possible, in part, by the Rising Youth grant, which awarded $1,500 to Colonel Gray student Steven Liu last May.
Once in their school, the flags had to be ironed and steamed, then attached to specialized flagpoles and installed.
“It was a big project. A lot of lunch hours," Lee said.
There are also a few more flags in storage in case a new student from an unrepresented country enrols.
“It’s going to be an ongoing project," Lee said. "We’ll continue to add.”
To commemorate the project’s completion and to celebrate diversity, the school held an international coffee house at the end of November. The event featured performances, video presentations and foods catered by local restaurants, including Middle Eastern fare from Sadat’s Cuisine and Asian food from Lai Thai.
The performances ranged from dancers to violinists to rappers. The last song was the popular “Wavin’ Flag” by K’naan, which got people singing along, waving their arms and shining their cellphone flashlights.
Shreya Singh, one of the student volunteers, was nervous that the evening event would have a low turnout. She was surprised when organizers far exceeded their seating capacity and hosted about 250 people, which included students, parents, teachers and the premier.
“It really paid off,” she said.
Payton Alexander, another student, said gathering and co-ordinating volunteers proved a challenge, as was making sure every logistic was looked after.
“There were a lot of small details that needed to be handled,” she said. “It went even better than I thought it would.”
Lee has since learned that the event was nominated for the P.E.I. Public School Branch’s Inspire Award. This was a nice way to be recognized for their hard work and the school’s values, she said.
It's also the kind of effort school principal Dominique Lecours referenced in October as Colonel Gray worked to move past the brawl.
"I think moving forward we want to use the leadership of our students and the whole student body to create a positive atmosphere at the school," Lecours told The Guardian at the time. "We are there to support them in using those leadership skills to make the school a more positive community."
Lecours says a safe and caring learning environment for all students and staff is the goal of the special PD day.
Lee sees value in this kind of professional learning.
“Our population has become more diverse," she said, "and we haven’t really received significant training in this field.”