Juneau's two middle schools stand just two and a half miles apart, but students say their impressions of the other school create a wide gulf.
Floyd Dryden is older and Dzantik'i Heeni is newer. The classrooms of each school are organized differently. And most formal contact has been through competitive sports, which has led to misunderstandings.
Recently, however, things started to change.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, teachers at the schools created a collaborative journal-writing program to help break down stereotypes, starting at the local level.
Participating classes respond to a given topic such as, "What do you think about the other middle school?" and the journals were sent to the other school for students to read, reply and write their thoughts on a new question.
Dzantik'i Heeni seventh- and eighth-grade teacher Jamie Marks, one of nine teachers involved, said the idea developed after staff from both schools met to discuss ways to cooperate on unrelated curriculum.
"When we all sat together, we began to talk about how we had been doing some journal writing to let (students) share their thoughts and impressions" about the Sept. 11 events, he said.
From that realization, the idea for a larger, shared project was born.
Dryden seventh-grade teacher Dianna Saiz said because negative stereotypes led to negative behavior nationally in the wake of the attacks, the teachers wanted students to examine their own lives and community. In addition, they wanted to provide an outlet for students to discuss their feelings after the attacks.
"These are middle-school-age kids, but they are deep in opinion," Marks said. "This gives them the chance to dialogue with each other."
The program opened a new line of communication, the teachers said, and improved some students' academic skills.
"Kids who are not highly motivated to write come and ask how to spell a certain word," Saiz said.
Woodland Hood, who teaches sixth through eighth grade at Dzantik'i Heeni, said some students stayed after school to finish their entries, and there has been discussion of letting journal partners meet later this school year.
Students said it has been interesting to hear thoughts from the other school.
In Saiz's seventh-grade class, Ricky Kennedy and Kami Wright said some Dzantik'i Heeni students wrote that Dryden students did not care about schoolwork.
"Some of them thought that we were slackers," Kennedy said.
"That was so funny," Wright added.
"I said we mostly aren't, but some are because they don't like school," Kennedy said.
That kind of measured response not being overly defensive and trying to see why the other school has that impression - is one of the things the teachers hope students take with them.
"When you're responding, you have to find a good way to respond (otherwise) they'll just keep on thinking it's a bad school," said Dzantik'i Heeni seventh-grader Andrea Francisco.
Another major goal of the journals is to teach students that improving the world starts at home and school.
"We want kids, in the end, to understand those conflicts on a large scale begin every day in our treatment of each other," Marks said.
And it appears that lesson is taking hold.
"It's good to talk to another school instead of competing," said Dryden seventh-grader Lisa DeWitt-Narino.
"It's erased a lot of stereotypes I had about Floyd Dryden," said Dzantik'i Heeni eighth-grader Maria Monagle.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at email@example.com.
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