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2 students honored for racial efforts

The Princeton Prize in Race Relations honored high school students who bridged racial divides in their communities in 21 metropolitan areas this year, the sixth for the award.

The Princeton Prize in Race Relations honored high school students who bridged racial divides in their communities in 21 metropolitan areas this year, the sixth for the award.

Two of those winners were from the Philadelphia area, which is being included for the third year. Ruben Gaytan, a senior at Kennett High School, shared the award - and the $1,000 prize - with Alir Rothwell, a senior at Chester High School.

Gaytan is the second Philadelphia Princeton Prize winner from Kennett in the three years of the award; Maria Zavala, who just finished her sophomore year at Pennsylvania State University, won in 2006. Which leads to the question: What is it about Kennett High, and Kennett Square, that has practically turned the Princeton Prize in Race Relations into the Kennett Invitational?

Kennett High has a sizable Hispanic enrollment, which it owes in no small part to the mushroom factories nearby. According to the school district, approximately 20 percent of district residents who are employed work in agriculture, mainly in the mushroom industry. Entering this school year, 377 of Kennett High's 1,210 students - about 31 percent - were Hispanic.

"It's very small, and we have a fairly unique situation here because of the mushroom industry, the number of Mexican immigrants," said Dora Lee, a Kennett Square resident who is a cochair of the Philadelphia alumni committee that selects the local prize winners.

"There are a couple of organizations in town who work very hard to help these immigrant children integrate into the community," said Lee, 53, an Exelon employee. The 1976 Princeton grad is no stranger to the challenges faced by a foreigner in a new culture: Lee moved from Hong Kong to New York when she was 13.

Among these organizations that Lee referred to are the Chester County Intermediate Unit's Migrant Education Program, Las Hermanitas (the little sisters), a mentoring program, and the Garage, a youth activity/tutoring center.

Zavala, 21, earned her Princeton prize for organizing "Loving Our Community," a program within Las Hermanitas that painted murals in the community to cover graffiti-tagged walls. Her volunteer work, and her drive to go to college (she studies political science at Penn State), didn't really kick in until later in her high school career, but not too late, she said.

"I wanted to improve my life by giving back to my community for everything that they had done for me," said Zavala, who moved to Kennett Square from Mexico when she was 14.

Gaytan, conversely, earned his Princeton prize through work at Kennett High School, where he revived the school newspaper, the Demon Press.

"I think there's a great opportunity for kids to get involved with race relations in the area. We have a pretty large and diverse group here," said Gaytan, 18, who is headed to Yale (despite Lee's objections) in the fall.

Gaytan, described by Lee as "high energy, like a ballistic missile," created a Hispanic section in the paper - "El Diario Latino" (


means newspaper) - which included stories written about issues facing the Mexican community in Spanish (later editions included English translations). He was not surprised that Kennett has produced two of the four winners of the prize.

"There's an opportunity to learn from other students about their cultures, make cultural connections, and build the gaps in between," said Gaytan, who moved to Kennett Square from Mexico when he was 5. "There's an opportunity for you to step in, take the initiative, and inform others."