Sixth-graders Madison Held and Allison Ackerman share a laugh during Mix It Up at Lunch Day at Westminster East Middle School.
Madison Held can point out where the athletes sit at lunch.
She knows where the more popular girls will park their trays, too.
The sixth-grader eats her packed lunch in a different part of the room, though.
But Tuesday across Carroll and the nation, some of those sections of school cafeterias looked a bit askew. Scruffy-haired boys sat with girls dressed to rival movie stars, and quiet girls huddled reading science fiction across from sports-obsessed conversationalists.
At least that was the goal of an initiative sponsored by Alabama's Southern Poverty Law Center and the Study Circles Resource Center in Connecticut. MixitUp, the latest in a string of activities designed to help educators improve students' tolerance of each other, is aimed at minimizing some of the social segregation in middle and high schools by getting students to talk with people they usually don't.
They talk about problems such as cliques and start with the most common arena of segregation.
"In the cafeteria is really where people get rejected the most," Madison said.
In an attempt to start down a different path, she and the other students at Westminster East Middle School were told to mingle at tables according to birthmonth, a second-day activity for the three-day MixitUp program.
A survey outlining where students believe cliques arise the most and soliciting ideas on how to bring students together, as well as hourlong discussions among groups of students, accompany the program in the first and third days.
Carrie Boron, a spokeswoman for the Study Circles Resource Center, which wrote the discussion pieces for the program, said the lunchroom was the most evident spot to start.
"When you step into any cafeteria, you definitely know which students are with what cliques or what groups," she said. "So that provided a place for, basically, students to step outside of their boundaries and get to know each other and meet someone new."
However, bucking the lunchroom trends just scratches the surface of what needs to be done, and if schools really want the program to work, they need to find ways to implement it without forcing students to change, she said.
At East, students were required to take part as they entered their lunch period.
Taylor Mongold, an eighth-grader, questioned the program's purpose.
"I wanted it to be people just talking with people they didn't know," she said.
Taylor, a self-professed jock who, like Madison, still managed to sit with students she knew well, said the concept was good but likely won't work long-term.
"Even next period, people are going to be like, 'So and so was so boring,'" she said.
That kind of reaction is expected, said Brian Willoughby, a spokesman for MixitUp.He said the goal is not for students to refrain from negative reactions, but to promote thinking of differences, even if in the subconscious.
"It's not to be avoided," he said "Just because someone says, 'Oh, that's lame,' doesn't mean they're not thinking about it," he said.
Statistics from Tolerance.org, the branch of the law center that sponsors the initiative, show that at least one-fifth of students from the past three years of the program have reported meeting new acquaintances.
And, when tied to another multicultural programs, the effect is intensified, he said.
County principals, such as East's Jeff Alisauckas, hope the program can be used in conjunction with the character education program, which enforces student growth through teaching different positive character traits, to decrease the number of bullying incidents in school.
No data exists to prove the MixitUp program can do that, Willoughby said.