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Festival theme: Viva la difference

At PTEC, a melting pot in more ways than one, conflict resolution and cultural awareness are taught and valued.

To the recorded strains of the balalaika, Tatiana Vondershaar danced the korobushka. The multicolored stones in her headdress _ or kokoshnik _ made her the star of the Multi-Cultural Festival, at least for the moment.

One thing about diversity festivals: There are lots of stars.

A hundred or so students scattered Friday throughout the Pinellas Technical Educational Center cafeteria, taking it all in. Aryelle Presley, who at 19 is young enough to be the granddaughter of the woman on stage, found the Russian dancing "cute," but added, "It doesn't do anything for me."

Still Presley, who is black, said that events like this one, the culmination of a year of diversity training, serve a purpose. That has been the hope of educators who have been teaching conflict resolution and cultural awareness at PTEC. One workshop earlier in the academic year focused on discrimination in housing.

"It tries to answer the question, "How do we co-exist in peace?' " said Alma Shamblin, a financial aid administrator and former teacher who volunteered to lead this year's multicultural program. "People need to learn social skills that do not lead to conflict."

As a half-dozen heavily costumed women from the St. Petersburg International Folk Fair left the building, a gospel duo had people clapping their hands to Highway to Heaven. TRIBE _ Thy Root Is Blood Eternal _ is actually a trio, but one of Velma Mims' two daughters could not attend.

Mims said she is trying to promote a broader understanding of "family."

"We are Christians who share the blood of Jesus," she said.

Some of the day's presenters and performers could not be described as Christian. Eric Esternik, a Lakota by mixed ancestry or "lineal descent," identified dozens of objects on a display table _ including turkey feather fans, brass beads, hair ties, a cattle skull _ for their ritual or ceremonial significance. But to recognize American Indians for their unique spirituality or anything else does not go far enough, he said.

"If I were to say that somebody from Portugal and somebody from Russia are European, would that be a very good description of those people?" he asked the audience.

Toward the end of the morning, his wife, Kimmy, a drafting student, held up a multicolored medicine wheel.

"It shows to us as Native Americans that we cannot separate ourselves from you without separating ourselves from everything," she said.

From a bench in the back of the room, a trio of teenage boys watched and chatted among themselves.

"They're good to everybody," Gordon Paravijna, 17, said of the people he has encountered here since arriving from Belgrade, Serbia. His friends Radislav Lukic, 17, and Dragan Nikolic, 16, also from Belgrade, agreed. All are studying computer servicing and repair.

PTEC's students are more than just ethnically diverse. Gibbs High School students cross the street for a business magnet program there. "Dually enrolled" high schoolers take buses from around the county to get equivalency degrees and pick up skills. Then there are teenage parents and 400-plus adults looking for vocational training.

One program caters to teens who have had academic problems, while another offers a last chance to students who have been expelled.

Still, the hallways look sparse for a 28-acre campus. Site administrator Clayton Share said that's because more students are finding work now than in the early 1980s, when the economy was bad and enrollment was high.

"Employers right now are crying for people who will come to work on time, come to work sober and listen," Share said. "Even without training, they're starting them at $10 or $11 an hour."

PTEC has a program for them, too. "Industry services" teachers go to job sites and try to build on skills students already have. Enrollment is booming, Share said.