Arsenia Tate encouraged the pre-kindergarten students to come closer and asked, “If I hold the book up, can you see it?”
Nods in the affirmative came from all around the classroom at St. Margaret of Scotland School in south St. Louis.
Tate read “I Like Myself” by Karen Beaumont and asked the students what they liked about themselves. “That I have friends,” a preschooler said immediately. “My hair” was another reply.
The book encourages students to appreciate everything about themselves and others. It’s part of Tate’s work at the school to broaden students’ views and experiences. Next month, she told the children, she’ll read “Dream Big, Little One” by Vashti Harrison, which highlights trailblazing black women in American history.
Tate was impressed recently by a remark from a student after a lesson she taught in class. He said that “I used to think that black boys were out to get me, but now I realize it was just a bad experience from one person who just happens to be black.”
Last April, St. Margaret was awarded a “transformational innovation” grant from the Roman Catholic Foundation’s Beyond Sunday school funding for a coordinator of inclusion, diversity and equity, the position Tate holds.
Mary Lisa Penilla, a parent and school board member, said St. Margaret, which has long valued diversity, was desiring “a deeper commitment, institutionalized by way” of a staff member “who could focus and sharpen our individual and collective efforts. We took our call from our mission, from our tradition begun in earnest under former principal Sister John Mandeville’s leadership, and in conjunction with the U.S. bishops’ renewed call to identify racism as a sin in need of healing.”
Tate began her role at the beginning of the school year. The diversity committee at the school had been handling the duties.
She’s assessing the needs this year and doing some programs such as Universal Yums, a cultural awareness effort that includes food from various countries. She created a slideshow and plays music of the country during lunchtime. “So they’re learning about a different culture every month,” Tate said.
She’s also incorporated a program of the Anti-Defamation League, No Place for Hate, which includes field trips to the St. Louis Art Museum titled “Concepts of Beauty in Bias.” She’s worked schoolwide to attack bullying and bias.
Each month the school does a prayer service focused on a different culture. The first was Hispanic Heritage Month, with kindergartners making a presentation and leading prayers for students of the school. They included facts about St. Oscar Romero of El Salvador.
At the end of the prayer service, students sang “We Are One Body,” while putting together pieces of paper representing a Latin American country on one side that added up to the U.S. flag on the other side. Their teacher reminded everyone that each culture makes a contribution to the United States.
Tate put together a Day of the Dead altar with help from the school’s Spanish teacher and parents. The celebration centered around family incorporated photos of students’ deceased loved ones. Prayers were prayed and explanations given of various symbols. “We really wanted to make sure that it was authentic, so we reached out to parents who celebrate it in their homes,” Tate said.
December’s theme was “Holidays Around the World.” The school year ends with a “Festival of Nations” incorporating the cultures each grade level researched.
Tate also teaches mindfulness for third- through sixth-graders. The subject helps students learn nonjudgmental attitudes, problem-solving and to “think before they act,” the educator said. St. Margaret has embraced the subject for about nine years. “They start in preschool, so they get a pretty good grasp of it,” Tate said.
Tate’s background includes working with YouthWorks, which provides Christ-centered mission trips for teens and adult leaders and Faithful Friends, a group that sponsors mentors for at-risk children.
She incorporates Catholic teaching in her efforts at St. Margaret, building on the work of parishioners in the area of social justice. “Our goal is to create this model for culturally responsive teaching, have a five-year plan and hand it over to all the Catholic schools,” Tate said.
She’s working with a researcher at the University of Notre Dame, Christian Dallavis, senior director of Leadership Programs for the Alliance for Catholic Education and a native of St. Louis, to further develop the model.
The school is following the lead of Archbishop Robert J. Carlson and the parish pastor, Father Matthew O’Toole, in addressing ways to heal racism in the Church.
St. Margaret of Scotland fourth-grader
Giselle Stoeva appreciates her school’s lessons on mindfulness and on
inclusion, diversity and equity.
“We learn about different races
and how people treat each other unkindly or how they help each other. We
learn about how to help. And we learn what’s wrong and what we can do
and what’s right and how to stay that way,” Giselle said.
school’s participation in programs such as No Place For Hate has a
positive effect, Giselle said. “It brings us closer than we already are.
We see positives in our school community and what to work on,” she
As a No Place for Hate committee member, she said, she and
other students are given responsibilities and are appreciated for the
perspectives they provide. “We have different perspectives than adults,
and the teachers let us be in charge,” Giselle said.