At Palm Beach County’s poorest public school, high tea with VIPs

South Grade Elementary students gather for high tea in Rebecca Hinson’s fifth-grade class, joined by the head of Guatemala’s consulate in Lake Worth, the school principal and an assistant school district superintendent.

In Ms. Hinson’s fifth-grade classroom Monday, the students passed around the three-tiered serving tray. They checked to ensure their forks and knives were properly situated. They clanged the sides of their glasses to announce toasts, and to welcome their VIP guests.

“Hear! Hear!” the students and adults said together.

For a dozen years, Rebecca Hinson has been organizing high tea to celebrate the end of the school year at South Grade Elementary in Lake Worth, the culmination of her work to fit in lessons in formal etiquette between all the reading, math and other academics. Things how how to hold a fork and knife. How to hold your hands in your lap. How to keep your elbows off the table.

The goal, she says, is to ensure that students enter middle school with some understanding of basic conventions of formal engagements.

Monday’s high tea was a perfect time to test those lessons, as the event drew elevated attention to accompany the elevated etiquette. Joining about 15 students for lemonade, fruit and cream puffs was the head of the recently opened Guatemalan consulate in Lake Worth, along with an assistant school district superintendent, the school’s new principal and a small gaggle of journalists.

Fifth-grader Tasha Erica Joseph leads a toasts in Rebecca Hinson’s class at South Grade Elementary.

It was an occasion for reflections on the importance of manners and customs in all avenues of life.

“It’s about showing respect for yourself and others and knowing what to do in special situations,” Hinson said.

And it was one that seemed particularly poignant at South Grade, a school that educates a high percentage of students from poor immigrant families, families that in many cases may have less exposure to formal social events. Last year no Palm Beach County public school had a higher percentage of students poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies than South Grade, at 99.7 percent.

The focus on manners and protocol impressed the Guatemalan consul, Mario René Azmitia, who told the gathered students that understanding proper etiquette and customs “is very important throughout life.”

It’s a life-lesson that the students seemed to appreciate. Among the favorite lessons– the toast. Several students took turns clanging their glasses and addressing the gathered guests, either to welcome the consul, give well wishes to the new principal or praising their school.

“You’re going to enjoy this year,” fifth-grader Ashley Oxlaj told the newly appointed principal, Ana Arce-Gonzalez, “and I hope you make  this school a better place.”

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