Success Stories Awakening Possibilities at MS 354

Speaking out against prejudice, bigotry and hatred

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When Counseling In Schools enters a school community, we follow a simple procedure: we assess where the strengths in the community lie; we assess what additional assets can benefit the community; we create a plan to provide those assets ourselves and/or to secure them from the community; then, community members utilize and integrate these assets into their lives as they grow and attain personal and communal goals.

In 2015, CIS entered MS 354, a Crown Heights Brooklyn middle school, as the lead community partner to implement the city’s Community School Model. The first asset we introduced into the community was our Community School Director, Amanda Bernardine.

Amanda’s work at this school began by attending meetings and events where the full range of school stakeholders gathered. Hearing the strong desire of the children and adults to create a school culture that would promote mutual respect and safety, she set in motion a plan that could achieve just that. To complement the work of our counseling services, Amanda identified the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place For Hate initiative as a program that could inspire and guide the entire student body, their family members and the staff toward the creation of safe school culture for all.

A central event of the initiative was an assembly that featured Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, a 25-year-old woman of Jordanian and Palestinian descent and founding editor of MuslimGirl, an online magazine for Muslim women. Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh exposed the perils of hatred by describing in great detail the bigotry she faced when she was a middle school student. She shared her experiences of being teased, feeling isolated and trying to fit in by appearing to be anything but the Muslim girl that she was. These painful experiences resonated with many and stiffened the resolve of the audience to speak out against prejudice, bigotry and hatred.

Counseling In Schools Success Stories: Awakening Possibilities at MS 354. Students attend a program.

Large assembly presentations, such as this one, can empower students, who would otherwise remain silent, to speak out – and that is just what happened at MS 354. Immediately following Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh’s presentation, 3 students approached her and started speaking to her in Arabic. The linguistic and cultural connections with Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh gave these students the impetus they needed to reveal their never-before shared experiential connections: being bullied, being called names, feeling separate from their classmates, and getting into fights. For nearly 30 minutes, Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh, Ms. Bernardine and MS 354 teacher, Marium Rizvi, bore witness to stories of pain and fear that had been pent up for months, if not years. The positive implications of these early adolescent children stepping out of the shadows, sharing their stories and investing their trust within the MS 354 community cannot be overstated.

Creating an environment that acknowledges the realities of pain, prejudice and hate in one’s life while at the same time opening opportunities for compassion and healing to take place is an asset frequently offered by CIS to members of our partnering school communities.

Hope, purpose and determination can flourish.

Together, let’s work toward a bright, resilient future for New York City’s children, families and schools.

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