Developing appreciation of diversity, practicing inclusion at school a focus at Pleasant Grove

I am Lilah Gonsalves, a senior at Pleasant Grove High School. I enjoy true crime, reading, my chunky cat and chickens, and pining after Harvard.

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This year, Pleasant Grove High School doesn’t just have a goal of educating students on academics. Besides book learning the school is also focusing on teaching students to celebrate diversity and practice inclusion on their campus. 

For the 2022-23 school year, Pleasant Grove’s administration hopes to fulfill the campus’ proclaimed Vision Statement of creating a “learning community where all are safe, supported, and encouraged to grow.” According to U.S News, 64.6 percent of PGHS students identify with a minority group, prompting the school to foster a welcoming community for their diverse group of students. 

Building on more than a dozen clubs centered around specific cultures, LGBTQ+ topics and inclusion, PGHS student government leaders and school administrators aim to further boost their campus culture through a variety of events being reintroduced as the school transitions back from distance learning. 

One of the most noticeable changes Pleasant Grove’s students have experienced so far is the freshly painted mural at the center of campus, which was designed by senior Lauren Johnson. 

Johnson was the winner of a school-wide art contest to choose what would be painted across the buildings lining the quad. After submitting her sketch in answer to the prompt “Pleasant Grove High School celebrates and values cultural diversity,” she was chosen by educators belonging to both her high school and school district to have her design painted by a hired artist.

“I wanted to do things that every student could resonate with,” said Johnson about the symbols she included in the mural. “I wanted to make sure that every kind of thing in high school is represented. But then, the whole idea was that diversity kind of touches every single aspect of our programs at school, and that’s kind of my whole idea around it.”

Johnson wanted to go further than the typical elements associated with high school, and while she included sports, clubs and academics, she also added multicolored skin-toned ribbons and the trans and gay pride flags. 

¨I wanted to make sure that all students felt included, so when they walk in, they know they have a place at PG,” Johnson said. 

Other than the mural, PGHS also plans on hosting a Multicultural Family Night in March. Being one of the activities experiencing a revival after the Covid lockdown, principal Taigan Keplinger said she hopes the event will be just as successful as before. 

“I think 600-700 families showed up. It was incredible,” Keplinger said about the pre-Covid event. “We also did a potluck, so each family brought a different cultural dish to share with everyone who attended the multicultural assembly.” 

On a more regular basis, Keplinger plans on promoting cultural clubs, such as the ones that perform in the annual Multicultural Assembly. Each month, a club will be selected to conduct activities during lunchtime that will introduce and familiarize students and staff with their culture. 

School leaders also plan on displaying students’ cultural artwork in new cases in the cafeteria. That way, students can view a display constructed from the “culturally relevant work” they’ve created in their own classes, Keplinger said. 

Even the school’s website has seen recent improvement, with a district-wide requirement resulting in a reorganization of all the high school websites. The graphics of the previous website weren’t easily accessible for the visually impaired, putting Elk Grove Unified School District in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and prompting the revamp. 

With the website now “accessible for all,” as Keplinger said, the result of the district’s unintended transgression might have actually increased Pleasant Grove High’s image as an inclusive and accommodating campus. 

Pleasant Grove’s students, on the other hand, have differing opinions about campus culture, and even the mural. Some students corroborate Keplinger’s assessment of an open and inviting campus, while others recognize there could still be improvement. 

Senior Emma Havers, who transferred to the school last year, is more favorable toward the claims of inclusion.

“I think it’s pretty diverse,” Havers said. “Like, especially different from other schools, I think there’s a lot of different people with different hobbies and different things they’re good at.”

On the other hand, senior Elaine Leon, while realizing the progress the school has achieved, still has questions about what the school has done so far in the way of inclusion. While she praises the diverse nature of the track and field team she’s a part of, Leon remains unimpressed by the mural. 

“Something that I’ve heard a lot of people talk about that I find interesting is that they were confused about the pride flag being on there, and also the trans flag, because it kind of seems like you’re picking one group,” Leon said.  

Even Johnson, the designer of the mural, has her own critiques about Pleasant Grove.

“I know it’s hard, but I think there could be more done of having students have more understanding and empathy towards people who have different life experiences than they do,” Johnson said.

Still, despite the range of opinions, Keplinger remains optimistic about the trajectory of the school’s diversity, citing inclusion as one of her “core beliefs” as both a “human and as an educator.” 

“I want everyone – students, staff, and families – to feel included and welcome on this campus and safe,” Keplinger said, “and my hope is through the mural, through the activities that we’re doing, that students see themselves as an important member of this campus.”

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