Boro group strives to end bias in elementary school

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In an effort to lessen racial bias that seeps into a child’s psyche as he or she gets older, the Queens section of the Community Service Society of New York is looking for volunteers to join and become a part of its Prejudice Reduction Program.

The organization is searching for a few good seniors and retirees to join its award-winning intergenerational project, which places senior citizens into elementary school classrooms in an effort to eliminate racism and teach children to respect everyone.

The Prejudice Reduction Program held a recruiting event last week at North Shore Towers in Floral Park.

“Our goal is to reduce prejudices among children, stop their teasing and make them see each other in a different light,” said Emilia Marzan, project coordinator. “We try to teach the children it is what is inside that counts.”

She said the program takes senior citizens into elementary schools to talk to and interact with kindergarten to fifth-grade students in an effort to tear down preconceived stereotypes. For example, she said, many of the children think all the elderly do is stay home, watch television and sleep.

The 16 Queens volunteers work with students at PS 99 in Kew Gardens and PS 17 Annex in Long Island City. There are five seniors working with each class for two hours one day a week for either a five- or 10-week period. But more are needed to expand into schools in Jamaica.

“After spending time with some of our volunteers,” Marzan said, “many of the children want to adopt one as a grandparent.”

The Prejudice Reduction Program was created in Staten Island in 1990 and focused on fourth- and fifth-graders. Buoyed by its success, it expanded to encompass kindergarten to third-graders and then in 1998 the organization expanded he program to the Bronx and Brooklyn. In 2000 it added Queens and Manhattan.

In the program’s 12 years more than 5,500 students have participated in one of three initiatives: Respecting Our Differences, Learning To Get Along and Respecting Our Age Differences Assembly Program.

Before the volunteers begin working with the students, they themselves have to participate in an eight-week course that “sensitizes them to their own feelings about people who are different,” introduce them to the curriculum and prepare them to work in the classroom. The seniors are taught by the program’s director and project coordinators.

In the classroom, Marzan said, the volunteers talk with the students, share their thoughts and use different activities to show students that inside they are all the same.

“When we get into the classes with the youngsters, we find they have been saturated with different facts,” she said. “We want to open their minds and reach them early.

“Kids can be cruel,” Marzan said. “We want to make them realize that they are hurting each other, that what you say has an impact.”

Henry Kaplan, who lives in North Shore Towers and worked with the group for one year, said he was retired and not doing much so he thought the program was a good way to give back to the community. In addition, he said, he has been involved with the Ethical Culture Society since 1942.

“This kind of anti-prejudice program is not far removed from the Ethical Cultural movement,” he said. “The school system does not teach how to get along with other people and find friends not enemies.”

Another volunteer, Esther Cohen of Flushing, said since she was a teacher in the New York School system for many years, joining the Prejudice Reduction Program was a logical choice.

“It is very important,” she said. “I was in the classroom for many years and I think the kids need it. It is as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:15 pm, October 10, 2011
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