A couple hours before Monday night’s JCPS School Board meeting, school members and superintendent Donna Hargens sat down for a quiz. The topic? Cultural diversity. As the video presentation cued up, a female voice posed the first round of questions.
“What percent of students are classified as non-white minorities?”
A clock in the corner of the TV screen ticked off 15 seconds.
“Forty-eight percent of students are classified as non-white minorities.”
“African-American students make up what percent of the district’s non-white minorities?”
“African-American students comprise 37 percent of non-white minorities.”
This quiz folds into a larger initiative by JCPS to improve and expand cultural competency training in the district.
(We have no idea how board members fared. They didn’t have to share their answers.)
As LEO reported earlier this year, African-American and disabled students rack up greater percentages of suspensions and discipline referrals than their white counterparts, despite making up a minority of the student population. It’s a discrepancy that’s been a long-standing issue in Jefferson County and urban districts nationwide. Of course, the factors are complex and educators shouldn’t shoulder blame, but it’s a problem the school board and community leaders have indicated needs addressing in order to shrink educational attainment gaps.
For the first time this year, 1,300 bus drivers had to partake in the training. (According to the presentation, more than 7,500 discipline referrals were given on buses in 2009-2010, a number JCPS would like to see drastically reduced.)
Over 600 central office staff have also taken part in the training that gives historical context to race and socioeconomic issues affecting students’ academics and behavior, as well as guidance on how to respectfully communicate with growing diversity. JCPS estimates their international students speak more than 100 different languages.
Principals have also completed the three-hour training. It’s up to them to now share their knowledge with teachers. But John Marshall, who was recently named assistant superintendent of diversity, equity and poverty programs, says his staff won’t just sit back and assume cultural competency training is occurring. Schools must report back to Marshall certain problem areas they see in their schools (for instance an inordinate amount of black males being suspended). From there, Marshall hopes to tackle those problem areas with the help of that individual school’s counselors, teachers, etc.
During the presentation to the board, Aukrum Burton, a multicultural education specialist with the district, said a lot of this training boils down to “human relationships.” Essentially, teachers and staff must get to know their kids, their backgrounds, and their cultures in order to effectively teach across differences.
That concept isn’t new, but it is one that takes time in a system already overloaded with demands and expectations.