Diversity In Learning:
Pride in the Utica School District
By Tennille Knoop
I grew up an Air Force brat. Born in Caribou, Maine, I stayed attached to my mother’s side as we relocated to Guam, Hawaii, Indiana, and Missouri. Life on base was interesting, as we were surrounded by like-minded families from all walks of life who, just like us, relocated every four years.
My time on base, and in school, was unique. It held a sense of community that welcomed families and students as they came in, even if your heart was broken from leaving your best friend from Arkansas behind in Missouri. It also served as a wild sense of adventure. With each state came new families, friends, and blended cultures, which brought opportunities to experience new things.
I sat underneath our banana tree in Hawaii, mesmerized as I bit into the sweet delight of Manuapa beside my new friends from Brooklyn, Mississippi, and Wisconsin who promised I’d like it. School field trips were on-base, where we explored bunkers and the inner workings of military fields, and off-base, where we discovered beautifully diverse places like the Kansas City Zoo, sugar cane and pineapple fields, and the Indianapolis Speedway.
Being a part of the military base community provided comfort when transitions occurred. Like a warm hug, the families and friends you gathered with had an understanding of the life we lead, and worked to ensure that everyone inside it understood we were part of a unique family; one that outsiders didn’t always understand. It is with that same understanding that I fell in love with the Utica City School District.
Holding onto my son’s tiny, soft hand, I walked into his elementary school for the first time, scared and unsure beside other kindergarten families. The secretary gave me a friendly hello, the principal stood in the doorway, greeting my family with an extended hand and hello, and a blond 6th-grade student with a foreign accent walked our family down the alphabet-designed hall and into my son’s very first classroom. My heart warmed as he found his cubby, and then his desk, and quickly began chatting with another student. He was safe and no longer needed me.
Over the next few years, all of my children enrolled in school, and just like I had done during my school years on many military bases, they began making friends with children from all over the globe. We’d sit around the dinner table at night and our children would teach us about Muslim traditions. They’d discuss the students who couldn’t eat or drink at school during Ramadan, they talk about Eid and share stories of classmates who’d received coins and money from relatives, and they helped their cousins pronounce and explain a hijab when they questioned why girls in their school wore scarves around their heads.
As my sons grew older, the community around us grew closer. Parents of my children’s friends would send food like suho meso, talapaw, and burek during their holidays, while I’d prepare Easter bread, fudge rolls, and sausage rolls for them. International Day at school was filled with homemade dishes prepared by families from all over the world, which complemented the music and multilingual conversations that filled the space. Family no longer was you or I; it became we and us.
When it comes to donations, the Utica School community has a giving side that is beyond compare. Perhaps it is because we see the less fortunate every day, or we know who in our child’s class waits for the school’s breakfast and lunch because it will be their only meal until the next day. During the Christmas holidays, students throughout our district have contributed hundreds of toys to aid underprivileged kids. When cold weather sets in, students bring extra hats, gloves, and coats for those who are without. In terms of supporting food insecurity, it would be difficult to find a community that works together more cooperatively to provide nourishment and sustenance to families in need, not to mention items that stock the Utica Food Pantry.
What our students see and understand, and what our school community has created in regards to kindness and giving back is exemplified when we watch students who have so little to begin with bringing in a small toy or crayons for another child in need. It speaks volumes about how these students learn by example and through the exemplary leadership of our teachers and faculty.
I believe wholeheartedly that our students must step into the future with one foot forward. They must be equipped to enter the world with social knowledge to understand the different dimensions and diversity that make up an ever-changing society and world. This melting pot of a community enriches the lives of our students, and their experiences will carry with them no matter how near or far they choose to venture.
My children are in middle school now. One is headed to high school, and one is still in elementary. So, I see all sides of life in the Utica School District, be they small or large. I can assure you that no matter what walk of life the families come from, we’re together, rooting for our children, learning from one another, and shaping the proud future that awaits them.
That sense of pride and community will never disappear. It drives our students to excel and discover ways to overcome the challenges they face. With continued support from the community, all they have to do is know we’re here for them now and always will be, rooting proudly all the way. It’s simply Utica Pride forever.