Exchange Program Allows South Florida Students to Trade Places

From Mark Twain's "Prince and the Pauper" to movies like "Trading Places," the theme of exchanging lives with someone outside your normal sphere of life has always been a source of fascination.

Thanks to a novel bit of social engineering, 48 high school students are experiencing what kids on the opposite end of the socio-economic scale do in school every day.

Booker T. Washington High School and Ransom Everglades School have created an exchange program. The schools are about eight miles apart, but are almost on different planets.

Booker T. is in Overtown. Almost all of its students are on free lunch. Ransom Everglades sits right on Biscayne Bay in Coconut Grove. Most of the students at this elite prep school come from extremely wealthy families.

For this entire week, 24 students from each school are trading places, spending their entire day in classes at the other school. It's full immersion into different educational and cultural experiences.

"Kids will be kids, like, kids are the same everywhere you go," said Booker T. student Vicky Dilbert, describing her impressions after a couple of days at Ransom.

"I didn't think I'd connect as easily as I did so that was a pleasant surprise," said Ransom student Will Danon. "Some kids want to go to medical school, another kid I talked to wants to be an entrepreneur and make it to the Forbes list. I think those are pretty high goals that kids from Ransom share."

This is the third year for the Booker T-Ransom Everglades exchange program. Friendships have been made, cultural lines have been crossed and in some cases, erased.                                    

"I think what it does is also breaks down some walls, we start to see that yes, we do have a lot of things in common," said Booker T. principal William Aristide.

His counterpart is the Upper School School Director at Ransom, Ken Mills, who said some of the most valuable contributions of this program come from the vicarious interactions of the students. 

"Our schools are so obviously different, the students in some ways are so obviously different, in some ways they're so obviously the same, so just addressing where the differences are, why those differences exist, where the barriers can be broken down, how those barriers can be broken down is something that needs to happen with these young folks, they're going to be  our leaders in the next generation," Mills explained.

It takes some courage to take part in the exchange. Imagine leaving your school and spending an entire week in a different school. These kids are fish out of water, but they're also having a learning experience that can't be duplicated without leaving their comfort zones. 

"Kind of how I came in thinking this is gonna be so different, we're world's apart, and we're really not, everyone's pretty similar, everyone likes the same things, same interests, same sorts of classes," said Ransom senior Emily Koffsky.

Two of her classmates in the exchange program drew laughs from their Booker T. colleagues when they said they played on the Ransom water polo team. Not exactly a popular sport in Overtown. Some disparities between the student bodies cannot be ignored.

"The only real difference here that I actually notice was opportunity, pretty much, because when you have more money you have a lot more options to do stuff," said Booker T. senior Aaron Willis, who went on to add that like his colleagues, he sees tons of similarities. "The same students, like at every school you have a jokester, you have smart people, the not so smart people, so every school is pretty much the same."

It's not coincidence the exchange is done in the week before the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday. Dr. King's message of equality, of brotherhood, of every citizen working together is very much at the heart of this idea. It's all about demystifying people who live on the other side of the cultural and racial divides.

"Eye opening for sure and I would tell everyone at Ransom they have to go, they have to be part of the exchange," Emily Koffsky said.

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