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Exploring Educational Realms: A Journey Through Two Distinct High School Cultures

students in a room

March 26, 2024 – In the heart of Ohio's bustling capital lies a tale of two high schools, each a microcosm of its surrounding community yet worlds apart in their cultural tapestries.

Columbus Alternative High School (CAHS), an exemplar of academic excellence and innovation, is situated in a vibrant urban landscape, andstudents pointing at map of columbus ohio stands as a testament to resilience and determination. Despite its urban setting, CAHS boasts a rigorous curriculum and a student body driven by ambitions to excel in prestigious universities and careers, mirroring the aspirations of its suburban counterpart, Upper Arlington High School. However, the contrasts between these institutions are stark. Despite their proximity, these two schools rarely intersect, cocooned within their spheres of influence.

So, how can these two school communities, just 15 minutes apart, be vastly different yet strikingly similar? These were the questions CAHS and Upper Arlington senior anthropology students actively sought to answer. They went on-site to the opposite school to better understand each one and find an answer to their question. Students were paired up and shadowed their partner for "A Day in the Life'' while completing fieldwork at both schools.

Through this exchange, students embark on a profound quest for understanding, challenging preconceived notions and the unexpected similarities that bind them together.

"We're still a highly segregated city that is still dealing with the results of redlining, so it is very easy for our kids to have zero experience in each other's world," said Columbus Alternative High School Teacher Sarah Thornburg. 

Due to their proximity, students attending either school may have unknowingly crossed paths when visiting the same areas, working in the same places, or even living down the street from one another. However, socio-economic barriers may also have prevented many from having contact despite the relatively close distance.

"We are trying to break down some of the unseen and very powerful barriers within the city that keep our kids from having experiences with each other despite [both] being in Columbus," Thornburg said.

Thornburg and her colleague from Upper Arlington, Linda Carmichael, are working with Erase the Space and The Ohio State University with one goal in mind—to break down those barriers. Erase the Space connects students to their community and its history and hopes to build a bridge between the two schools, their anthropology programs, and the two communities. 

"We want to create a more inclusive, diverse society and environment for the students to learn because that enriches everybody's place," said Upper Arlington educator Linda Carmichael.

At CAHS, the students' introductory day-in-the-life icebreaker led them through an activity that raised awareness of the diversity they encounter daily. During the activity, educators gave students beads and asked questions; each color bead represented a different culture and ethnicity. 

"I thought my cup was going to be a lot more colorful, and more diversity would be represented," said CAHS senior Saeed Abdiner. "It was more black and white, but the other cups around me had much more diversity, which I didn't expect."

Students from both locations have been collaborating with their counterparts all year and ended their experience with the exchange. They put their biases aside and performed fieldwork in the buildings. Fieldwork included:

  • Observing and recording the culture of the buildings.

  • Noting similarities and differences to their own high school experiences.

  • Recording oral histories.

"I was interested to see how we were taking the same IB anthropology class but in a vastly different space and how that would affect the courses," said Upper Arlington senior Austin Johnson. 

CAHS has been in its current location since the late 80s. The front part of the building, with traditional red brick, was built in the 1920s. The rest was built in the 1960s, leading to a space-age feel mixed with a classic elementary school, creating a disjointed hodgepodge.

Contrast this with Upper Arlington, whose sleek modern building, less than three years old, boasts luxurious amenities such as a swimming pool, rowing room, large glass windows, and cafes with comfy seating that rival those at the John Glenn International Airport. 

CAHS students were impressed with the ability to stand on a glass walkway that looked down on the rest of Upper Arlington's school's interior, connecting its state-of-the-art theater with the rest of the building. Johnson noted that the space in which CAHS students spent their education time had character and felt more natural to him. This architectural feature sparked a debate about how the school's material culture creates the culture within its walls.

"CAHS takes pride in being a highly ranked, sought-after school in a really [dated] building," Thornburg said. "We wear it as a badge of honor because we accomplish things despite our building, not because of our building."

Despite the differences in the buildings, Johnson said that he felt the same sense of community at CAHS as he did in his anthropology class. In fact, he thinks the entire CAHS school has a vibe similar to his exceptional class.

"Anthropology is a very unique class at UA, and it creates a different community than any other class I've been in – I get the same feeling throughout the entire building [at CAHS]," Johnson said. "Even though it's in a completely different neighborhood and building, with a much more diverse set of students, it's a lot of the same feeling as the community that the program creates at UA."

Thornburg and Carmichael have said that the collaboration between the schools has been eye-opening and truly sparked interest in their students. They want it to keep growing from here.

"We want it to become part of the tradition of being an anthro student at both schools," Thornburg said. "Over the years, we'll have a collection of oral histories from when the kids interviewed each other. We've already seen some students have blossoming friendships, and we want to see more of those continue in the future."

Power of One

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