By Jim Tortolano/Orange County Tribune
There is a pleasant irony in knowing that a school system that once famously practiced segregation based on race is now renowned for its inclusiveness.
The Westminster School District, its place in history as the defendant in a legal battle that would contribute to the end of “separate but equal” education, observed its 150th anniversary in ceremonies on Thursday, acknowledging its past while celebrating its present.
Star of the afternoon was Sylvia Mendez, whose parents went to court on her behalf in 1946 to challenge the policy of the WSD – along with three other Orange County districts – of sending people of her ethnicity to “the Mexican school.”
The case ended up as a triumph for equality as the California Supreme Court struck down the separation based on race. Its ruling in “Mendez vs. Westminster” was a precedent that led to the landmark 1954 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court banned racial segregation across the nation.
On Thursday, Mendez was full of glowing words about the WSD. “I’m so proud of the Westminster School District. I go around the country telling people about the trilingual education we have here,” noting that most public school systems don’t even have bilingual classes.
She was referring to the Spanish language and Vietnamese language double immersion programs pioneered by the WSD.
“The district has accomplished so much over these many, many years,” said Cynthia Paik, superintendent.
To focus the immersion programs, students from those programs danced and sang traditional music from their cultures to the appreciation of the audience, which included local dignitaries, parents and district staff.
The event also featured a flag salute by the Westminster Police Honor Guard, other guest speakers including Janice Munemitsu.– whose family owned the land the Mendez family farmed – and Westminster Mayor Tri Ta.