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Minnetonka schools checkered with Peace Sites

posted Sep 4, 2014, 4:02 PM by Dan Thiede   [ updated Sep 4, 2014, 4:03 PM ]
This article is by Stephanie Gonyou and originally appeared in the Sun Sailor.

Minnewashta Elementary is celebrating 24 years with the designation.

Students in the Minnetonka School District are granted countless advantages of dedicated teachers, updated technology and opportunities they might not receive in other districts. This Friday, students at Minnewashta Elementary will celebrate one more accomplishment: attending school at an internationally-recognized Peace Site.

World Citizen, a nonprofit based in St. Paul, designates schools, churches, businesses and all kinds of places around the world that are dedicated to creating a peaceful world as Peace Sites.

Each May, fifth grade choir students at Minnewashta Elementary lead a Peace Site Assembly to celebrate their school’s designation as a Peace Site. But they are not the only ones who should be celebrating. Clear Springs Elementary, Scenic Heights Elementary and Excelsior Elementary are also dedicated Peace Sites.

Scenic Heights will be having its Peace Assembly in the Peace Garden May 29.

There are several qualifications these schools had to meet in order to become a Peace Site. International Peace Sites commit to five Peace Actions: “to seek peace within themselves and others, to reach out in service, to protect the environment, to promote intercultural understanding and celebrate diversity and to be responsible citizens of the world,” according to

An application process determines whether a site meets the requirements, and ongoing service projects continue after designation.

The first dedication in Minnesota was at Longfellow International Fine Arts Center, an elementary school in Minneapolis in May 1988. As of December 2001, there were 211 Peace Sites in Minnesota and more than 750 around the world.

Minnewashta Elementary Music Teacher Sarah Abelsen teaches the fifth-grade choir and prepares her students for their starring role in the Peace Site Assembly each year. Minnewashta Elementary has been a Peace Site since 1990.

Abelsen looks forward to the assembly not only because it is fun for the students, but also because having her school recognized as a Peace Site aligns with her personal beliefs as well. She is thankful music is the focus of the assembly because of music’s ability to unite people regardless of language.

“I just love bringing all these songs from different countries to the kids and reminding them of all different parts of the world,” Abelsen said. “We all want the same thing – to be safe.”

Abelsen inherited the role of Head of the Peace Site Committee, a group of five teachers who plan the event each year, but said she wouldn’t give it up for anything. She said every assembly is slightly different from the last, but that certain special songs are sung year after year.

Fifth grade choir student Eli Hooker Reese will lead the ceremony with his classmates, and he is thankful for the students and staff in 1990 who originally pushed the program.

“I think it’s really cool that we’re a Peace Site,” Hooker Reese said. “(At the assembly) we get to show pictures of people who made a donation this year or did volunteering.”

Fifth-grader Sophie Buechler said in order to honor other cultures around the world and to promote peace, their school sings songs in several languages at the assembly. Songs are performed in English, Spanish, Zulu, Hebrew, Arabic and even American Sign Language.

Similarly, the Peace Pole that Peace Sites may display on their land reads “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in nine different languages, including Braille.

Minnewashta’s Peace Pole is stored in Abelsen’s classroom. She said she hopes next year they can make a “big deal” out of it and plant it somewhere on school property.

The designation of Minnewashta Elementary as a Peace Site means different things to different students. Fifth-grader Grace McHugh said she believes her school is a happier place because of it.

“I feel like it’s more peaceful in this school than in other schools that maybe aren’t Peace Sites,” McHugh said. “There’s not a lot of chaos.”

Service projects done throughout the year are documented at the assembly in a slide show, and upon the introduction of each grade-level’s service project, members of that grade are invited to stand for recognition.

Abelsen said the staff wants to make sure students feel appreciated and that they know people are noticing the good they’re doing. She said the goal in teaching students about their school as a Peace Site is to promote the idea of spreading peace their entire lives.

“This is not just a for-right-now thing,” Abelsen said. “This can be part of who you are and what you do always.”

Parent and Minnetonka Schools Para-professional Debbie Thomasson deeply respects Minnetonka schools for this outreach and service effort. She said having her children grow up in this environment is helping them grow to be good people in the future.

“At the end of the day, (peace) becomes a focus,” Thomasson said. “It encourages conversation and responsibility … my children will come home and talk about it and it will mean something to them.”

Thomasson said the culture of volunteering and respecting others has a ripple effect on her family’s life. She said peace has to start somewhere.

“Ultimately, anything someone can do to spread peace out into the world is a huge thing,” Thomasson said.

Parent Amy Gammill said she appreciates this designation because it helps young people learn not just what they need to know to pass a test, but also how to be good citizens of the world.

“Simply put, in this day and age of school, community, national and international violence, I am so very proud and grateful that my local school and school district is being proactive in teaching kids they have the power and ability to make this world a more peaceful place,” Gammill said.

While parents are thankful for the honor, only students and staff attend the assembly. Abelsen said it’s not just because of a lack of space in the gym, but because simply inviting the school community to celebrate helps unify the school as Minnewashta Elementary School: Peace Site.