City charter schools students celebrate life, legacy of Dr. King

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The last place you would expect to see students and teachers on a day off from school would be, school.

That was not the case early Monday morning as the City of Cape Coral's Municipal Charter School System held its Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Celebration in the Oasis High School gym.

A high turnout filled the bleachers of the gymnasium to honor Dr. King and his legacy of bringing racial peace and harmony to our country.

In keeping with that theme, the school system held an art and essay contest. As part of the competition, students from across the system's four schools were tasked to create an art project or write an essay using Dr. King's famous quote, "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend."

At Monday's ceremony, the winners were announced. Hearing the essays and seeing the artwork on display it was evident that Dr. King's message of racial harmony was not lost on the students of all four schools.

For fifth grade student Caden Winstead, the project was an opportunity to express his feelings for what Dr. King stood for and at the same time be creative with that expression, "We were told to use our imagination and do anything we wanted as long as it had to do with Dr. King and the speech."

He did just that and meticulously took eight black and white pictures of Dr. King and layered them with splashes of color, "The multiple colors symbolize the different races of people living together," explained Caden.

For his efforts, Caden won the first place prize from Christa McAuliffe Elementary School.

After the student awards, and a presentation by the Oasis High School Model UN Group, Lee County 20th Judicial Circuit Judge Archie B. Hayward, Jr. shared historical perspectives on segregation and Dr. King's efforts to end discrimination across the country particularly in the South. Judge Hayward also shared insight on Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech and how it may have never happened had it not been the insistence of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson for Dr. King to give that speech on that day in 1963.

Upon the conclusion of the ceremony, those in attendance took part in a ceremonial "Unity Walk" from the gym to the cafeteria where upon arrival enjoyed a morning breakfast and conversation.

This was the second time in three years the City and the Charter School System have hosted the event, which Cape Coral City Manager John Szerlag first introduced in 2014 after creating a similar event in his previous position as a city manager in Troy, Michigan, "The first real experience of diversity for many of these children is in the school systems. To have all the kids together and talk about diversity and how to get along with everyone of all cultures is so important at that level. Hopefully by doing these types of events and initiatives it becomes engrained in their values moving forward."

Charter School Superintendent Nelson Stephenson, shared Szerlag's sentiments and goals for the event saying the celebration and associated contests serves as an important lesson for the 3.200 students enrolled in the city's charter school system, "This is an opportunity to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and serves as a reminder to our students about all the things they heard about today and work toward implementing them in their everyday life not just today, but as they grow into adults."

Both Stephenson and Szerlag say they intend to make the celebration an annual event that will hopefully continue as a tradition for years to come.

Below are the winners of the 2016 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Essay & Art Projects Contest.

Oasis Elementary Winners (Kindergarten - Second Grade)
First Place- Addison and Kenley Kalbhenn
Second Place- Gabriel Sangiovanni
Third Place- Ben Farwell
Oasis Elementary Winners (Third Grade - Fifth Grade)
First Place- Funmi Coates and Madison Costoulos
Second Place- Jordan Freeman
Third Place- Challen Lowe and Savannah Lynch
Christa McAuliffe Art Winner
First Place- Caden Winstead
Oasis Middle School Essay Winner
First Place- Brandon Lepor
Oasis High School Art Winners
First Place- Lauren Edward
Second Place- Mary-Grace Minervini
Third Place- Briona Vilkas