WESLEY CHAPEL — Guidance counselor Meredith Jones stood just outside the Wiregrass Ranch High cafeteria Thursday morning, handing out brightly colored table passes to each student who came in for lunch.
"Mix it up!" Jones told the puzzled looking teens.
Rather than sit at their usual tables with their usual groups, the kids were encouraged to step outside their comfort zone and meet someone new.
It's part of a national effort sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project.
"We get a lot of new kids and a lot of new faces," principal Ray Bonti said of his growing suburban school. "It's important for kids to experience diversity."
With nearly 1,800 students, Wiregrass Ranch is Pasco's third-largest high school. Slightly more than 46 percent of the students are not white, making the school also Pasco's most racially diverse.
That does not stop the teens from separating themselves in that most cliquish of places, the school cafeteria, where guidance department chairman Glenn Cable said he can draw a map of where to find the different groups each lunch period.
But Thursday, many gamely went along with the "getting to know you" initiative.
Senior Kalen Wright met fellow seniors Elyse Houston and Kayshla Ayala for the first time at the Mix It Up lunch.
"This is a big school," Elyse said.
She admitted to being slightly nervous about approaching strangers. That's why she brought Kayshla along.
"But they seem like really interesting people, so it will be nice to get to know them," she said.
"I think it's actually quite cool," he said of the event. "You get to meet different personalities at the school and make new friends."
Clarissa Monaco, an exchange student from Brazil, found the activity particularly helpful. She enjoyed talking with different people and also asking them questions as part of the Mix It Up bingo game. The students were to try to find others who shared their interests using a bingo card as a guide.
Those who completed a line first won small prizes.
"I usually sit with a group of people that I met in acting class," she said. "At first it was really difficult to make friends. This is really great. I like it."
Not everyone shared in the enthusiasm.
"This is our free time, and we want to be with our friends," said sophomore Heather Ford, who sat with the same girls she's eaten lunch with for two years.
Freshman Brelyn Davis attempted to get her bingo card filled out by visiting other tables, but retreated to her group after getting nowhere.
"Most people are not into Unity Day. They want to sit with their friends and they don't really care about the game," said Brelyn, a purple-haired girl with Halloween-themed braces (orange and black bands) who explained she aims to be different.
Her friend, Robbie Carr, loaded down with chains and bracelets, didn't even try, saying he's been called enough names by people who don't know him.
"It's a good concept, but you need to have it be more monitored or in a smaller group," Robbie, also a freshman, said.
Between bites of spaghetti, salads and pizza, many students said they feel like Wiregrass Ranch already mixes it up plenty without much encouragement.
"People here have more respect for each other" than at other schools, said junior Josie McCrary, who attended a different high school last year.
Freshman Amber Grace, who shared lunch with Josie, shared that view.
"It's like seniors wouldn't be caught dead with the freshmen," she said. "But here, everybody hangs with everybody. It's cool."
As students streamed out to their next classes after lunch, one boy shouted out, "Nice meeting you guys!" A girl remarked to her friends, "We met a whole bunch of new people."
Listening in, the counselors smiled at one another and expressed pleasure at a job well done, if only for a day.
Several other Pasco middle and high schools planned to participate in Mix It Up, though many did not have their activities on Thursday. They included River Ridge Middle, Pine View Middle, Gulf High and Wesley Chapel High.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.