When Wagner Marseille arrived from Port au Prince, Haiti as a young boy and began his life in the United States in Princeton, New Jersey, it took him years to become comfortable in what for him was “a different world.”
“It was an extremely difficult adjustment coming from a place of so much poverty as an immigrant to a place that was so affluent,” said Marseille, the superintendent of the Cheltenham School District in Montgomery County. “I felt I didn’t have a voice. I wanted to make sure that when I had the opportunity other students didn’t have to experience what I went through.”
To that end, on Wednesday at the Upper Dublin High School Performing Arts Center (6 p.m.), the Cheltenham School District and the Ambler and Cheltenham chapters of the NAACP will introduce a Montgomery County-wide, multi-racial group of students selected as part of the first cohort of the Cultural Proficiency/Race and Equity Student Ambassadors program.
The program also includes students from the Upper Dublin, North Penn and Norristown school districts.
“Cultural proficiency is the key to thriving in culturally diverse classrooms and schools,” Marseille said, “and it can be learned, practiced and institutionalized to better serve diverse students and their families and their communities.”
The demography of the school districts is distinctly different. African American students make up 55% of the students enrolled in the Cheltenham School District. Conversely, students of color comprise only 7.3% of the students in the Upper Dublin School District.
Ambassadors will develop a cultural proficiency-equity student leadership council; build capacity to serve as allies for their peers and others, creating a space for student voices on social justice issues; develop strategies to self-advocate; establish peer leadership opportunities; and develop student diversity trainers.
Students from the various school districts have been meeting and will continue to do so. The plan is for the ambassadors to return to their schools and communities and to share what they have learned about their differences.
“There has been no greater time or opportunity than now to engage our high school students around sharing their voice and perspective about race and equity,” said Ambler NAACP President Carmina Taylor.
The student ambassadors next meeting is scheduled for March 9. In the coming months the students from each school district will bring about 20 additional students from their respective districts in order to “grow and expand the conversation beyond the ambassadors,” Taylor said.
The launch event on Wednesday will also include the announcement of the finalists of the Ambler NAACP’s second annual Black History Month essay contest.
“It’s a great launching point and a wonderful gathering of folks who are interested in making Montgomery County and more culturally proficient,” Marseille said. “And the best way to make it better for the future is to have the youth leading the conversation.”