Student's effort bridges the gulf of cultural tolerance

One morning last semester at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, freshman Peyton Klein noticed her new classmate Khawla and their homeroom teacher looking defeated as they struggled to communicate.

Khawla and her family had fled Aleppo, Syria, over the summer and settled in Highland Park, and the 16-year-old entered Allderdice in the ninth grade. Peyton said she'd seen similarly pained interactions more often as the Pittsburgh Public Schools' immigrant and refugee population grew.

Smiles spread across the girls' faces Tuesday as Peyton told Khawla for the first time how she inspired her.

"You made me want to do this whole thing," Peyton said.

"I like that so much," Khawla said, beaming.

That experience last year culminated in Global Minds, a weekly after-school program at the Squirrel Hill high school that aims to help those new students and their native English-speaking peers better understand each other through discussions and activities centering on human rights, diversity, sustainable development and international relations.

Amid the fallout from President Donald Trump's recent executive order putting a temporary hold on admitting refugees and visa holders from seven Muslim-majority nations, Peyton said she's doubling down on her goal of encouraging cultural tolerance.

"There's all this stuff going on in the world, and I think it's so important that our ESL students feel safe and comfortable and have the academic resources that they need to succeed," she said. "I'm even more motivated to make this possible and to engage people in educated dialogue."

About 25 students representing at least seven countries sat on the floor of a fourth-floor classroom Tuesday watching, over snacks, a video about advocacy, before moving to a hallway for small-group chats. At earlier meetings, they had designed posters highlighting positive things about their native countries and learned words in each other's languages. Peyton asked a reporter not to use the last names of the immigrant and refugee students.

Mjdoleen, a 17-year-old senior from Saudi Arabia who now lives in Squirrel Hill, said Global Minds has helped her adjust to life in Pittsburgh. "I'm expecting to make friends and learn more about other cultures," she said.

"In a lot of places right now, I feel like refugees or immigrants aren't feeling welcome," said Ali Axtman, 16, of Squirrel Hill. "And I want our school to be a place where we can be connected and everyone can feel welcomed."

Pittsburgh Allderdice freshman Chloe, center, 14, of Squirrel Hill talks with fellow freshman Khawla, right, 17, of Highland Park and a small group of their fellow students during Global Minds' weekly after-school club meeting on Tuesday. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

Under the guidance of Allderdice English as a second language teacher Jane Valinsky, Peyton first spoke with two ESL classes for feedback before launching Global Minds. Near the end of the fall semester, she applied for a grant from the Sprout Fund's "100 Days of US," an incentive supporting community-led projects during the first 100 days of the new presidential administration.

Though already underway, Global Minds was one of 25 winning proposals out of the more than 150 applicants. The selection committee was especially struck by Peyton's effort to rally youth voices around important topics, said Sprout program officer Ryan Coon.

"We're proud to be a supporter," he said.

The $4,500 award from Sprout will go in part toward inviting speakers to talk with Global Minds students and for field trips, Peyton said. She's working with Pittsburgh Cares, where she's on the youth advisory committee, on a student mural project Downtown.

Global Minds also has received $1,000 from the Awesome Pittsburgh foundation and $2,500 from the Vert Charitable Trust, she said, and is seeking other grants. Some of money will go toward tutoring materials and Smart boards for immigrant and refugee students. The program also serves as her service project for the school district.

"I think it's awesome," Allderdice principal Melissa Friez said of the club. "Having kids that are like, 'Hey, we're thankful that you're here, we're happy to have you,' (is) very valuable."

Global Minds has emerged as the English-language-learner population in the school system has increased. Of the district's 24,000 students, about 1,020 are ELL students representing 57 countries. That's up from 877 at the end of May, a fact that English as a second language director Jonathan Covel attributes in part to refugee resettlement and secondary migration — when an immigrant already settled in the U.S. moves to another state.

Spanish is the native tongue for most of these students in city schools, and the district is seeing growth in Arabic-speaking students from several countries. Peyton wants to expand the program to other schools, including Brashear High School, which has 270 English language learners, and Colfax K-8, which has 94. Two University of Pittsburgh students will help her with curriculum.

"There's all this stuff going on in the world, and I think it's so important that our ESL students feel safe and comfortable and have the academic resources that they need to succeed," said Allderdice freshman Peyton Klein, 15, of Squirrel Hill. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

Peyton can't vote and she can't drive, she wrote in her Sprout Fund application, but she's intent on making a change while managing Global Minds, tutoring Khawla and her brother, completing her own classwork and serving on several boards. She got all A's last semester, she noted.

When she was 11, she asked her grandmother, who had run a literacy nonprofit in Philadelphia for 20 years, to teach her how to write a grant.

"I'm like, 'Are you kidding me, Peyton?'" Margie Klein recalled. "She said, 'There's so many things I'm interested in. Maybe one day I'm gonna write a grant for something I believe in.' I knew it wouldn't be long. She had that fire from the time she was a kid."