St. Joan Antida High School’s first Destiny Day of the school year was a celebration of Hispanic culture. (Submitted photo)

Megan Otero says it to her students all the time: “We have a responsibility to learn about one another while we are learning alongside one another.”

That’s a big — and exciting — task at a school like St. Joan Antida High School in Milwaukee, where 216 students hail from 23 of the city’s 33 zip codes.

That diversity is something that “we embrace in all of the students who come to us,” said Otero, the principal at the school.

“Culture plays a huge part in our students’ identity,” she said.

The school is intentional about taking opportunities to experience and understand the ethnic groups represented at St. Joan Antida. One way they do this is through quarterly “Destiny Days,” which feature a morning of cultural education and fun paired with an afternoon of academic and social enrichment.

“We feel it is an honor as well as an opportunity to celebrate the cultural diversity of our students and staff,” said Marikris Coryell, President of St. Joan Antida High School. “By showcasing the different elements of a culture, we have an opportunity to celebrate and increase the overall understanding of diversity among us, while having a shared bond of sisterhood across us.”

The 2023-24 school year’s first Destiny Day was Sept. 13, when St. Joan Antida’s Latina Student Union organized a morning that celebrated Hispanic culture.

“We knew that we wanted it to be fun. We wanted full engagement from the students,” said Janet Delmas, co-moderator of the LSU and teacher of French, Spanish and theology at the school. “We have Mexican students, Puerto Rican students; we have people from all over Latin America, so we wanted everyone to be able to have the opportunity to see how we live our culture.”

The day kicked off with a morning assembly that concluded with a surprise Miss Universe-inspired parade of girls representing different countries and territories, sporting outfits inspired by their “homeland” and bearing its national flag. Students then formed groups by homeroom (or “den” as they are known at SJA) to rotate through eight different stations that featured interactive presentations on religion, dance, games, food, pop culture, film, business and art.

“Basically the whole school had something happening — every floor,” said Delmas.

On the third floor, students learned about religious traditions in Spanish-speaking countries and sampled rosca de reyes, an Epiphany cake that bears a hidden image of baby Jesus. In the art room, they browsed handicrafts and artistic creations from different countries while making papel picado and receiving intricate calavera body art on their hands. In the fourth floor classrooms, Latino culture was represented in films like “Coco,” “Encanto” and “In the Heights.” In the school’s new Burke ROAR Center, students heard about Hispanic businesses and entrepreneurship while receiving education on personal finance. At the danza cultural station, students Ixchel Ramirez, Kim Garcia and Jackie Rodriguez led workshops on salsa, bachata and cumbia.

An especially popular station seemed to be the Taste of Latin America, where students sampled sweet and savory cuisine, including tacos, tamales, buñuelos, flan, arroz con leche, fresas con crema, gelatina and tres leches cake, all prepared by students and staff themselves.

“I’m really proud of the students and how they took the initiative,” said Delmas. “This couldn’t have been done without the students being the leaders of their sessions. It was a huge undertaking to set everything up and make everything run smoothly. It was a lot of work.”

I think learning is at its most powerful when it is student driven, and so to see students not only in the drivers’ seat of their teaching and learning, but also to see the way the entire school community embraced this learning opportunity with their full hearts was such a beautiful thing,” said Otero.

Destiny Days repeats every quarter at St. Joan Antida, with a different school organization at the helm for each of the morning sessions. In February, the school’s Black Student Union provided a morning of programming, followed by a Lenten retreat in the third quarter.

The afternoon portion of Destiny Days is dedicated to four core experiences the students rotate through each quarter. One group tours a business somewhere in the city of Milwaukee, another engages in an immersive service experience, a third visits a local college and the last group enjoys an activity that celebrates sisterhood.

Coming out of the pandemic, said Otero, it’s especially crucial for schools to help students learn how to be part of a community — and a community as diverse as St. Joan Antida is the perfect place to practice.

“We’re pretty unwavering in the belief that the future of Milwaukee is running through St. Joan Antida,” said Otero, noting that 90 percent of the high school’s graduates stay in the city of Milwaukee. “Programs like Destiny Days are places where we can learn about one another, where joy and learning and celebration can all coexist in a really beautiful way and help our girls move through those cultural lines in a way that is respectful and appreciative.”