September 4, 2015

Cultural Competency

We had our first two days of professional development this year and I'm impressed to say I can't complain. Sure there was some stuff I've seen repeatedly (the same required powerpoint on the difference between an accommodation and a modification along with repeated reminders that 504's are legally binding) but the refresher didn't hurt and the new teachers needed to hear it. A new idea we are working on this year is building our cultural competency. The teacher handbook includes a couple relevant definitions:

Cultural competency:
The ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds.

Ensuring that students have equal and equitable opportunities to take full advantage of their education, generally requiring schools to provide additional services or remove any actual or potential barriers that might prevent some students from equitable participation in certain courses or academic programs.

I have to tell you this amazing news right now, immediately after that definition: Free breakfast and lunch for everyone! No activity fees for clubs or sports! It's so unbelievably wonderful! We have always given free and reduced lunch to anyone who qualifies. We have always waived fees for anyone who needed it. But to qualify, we needed to process forms. To know that someone has need, kids had to tell us. When everyone gets free lunch and no one pays fees there's no stigma; there's no barrier to access. When there's no excuse not to eat breakfast and lunch I can nag kids who are hungry and answer my question of "Did you eat breakfast/lunch?" in the negative without worrying that they didn't eat because there's no food at home and they somehow didn't qualify for free meals. Most of the schools in the district qualified for the food grant (the school had to have a certain percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged) and the school committee decided to waive the activity fees (despite the budget crunch) presumably because equity is that much of a priority this year. I'm so proud to work here right now!

Okay, end side bar, back to reporting in order:

"The professional development in this category will enhance the cultural competence of all high school staff, in order to increase staff and student relationships and improve the overall school culture. As a result, we hope to see a decrease in behavior problems."

We are working with the Massachusetts Institute of College and Career Readiness as a Gateway City to achieve this. During five professional development sessions we will work on the following goals:

  • Establish that racial, cultural and economic differences are real and that they make a difference in education outcomes.
  • Establish the need for a personal and professional journey toward greater awareness of how race, culture and economic difference impact educational outcomes.
  • Demonstrate that difficult topics can be discussed in an environment that is honest, safe and productive.
  • Understand what a "welcoming community" is and develop a vision of excellence for all students.
We started with a comparison of Salem 20 years ago (when our principal was a student at the high school) and now. The statistics have changed dramatically. In 1995 the school was mostly white and middle class (I didn't write down the percentages). Now we are:
  • 60% Economically Disadvantaged
  • 48% White
  • 39% Latino
  • 5% Black
  • ~30% Special Education
  • 70% High Needs (economically disadvantaged, special ed, English Language Learner or some combination of the three)
  • I don't have current ELL data, but I remember hearing something surprisingly small last year (maybe 13%?) because it only includes students who are currently enrolled in ELL classes. I think the number of students who don't speak English at home would be much more informative.
Then we took a multiple choice test (standing to vote for our answer) that boiled down to predicting if we write up students categorized by ethnicity below, at or above their population percentage. I was disappointed to be accurate in my choice that we write up Latino and Black students far more often than White students (proportionally speaking) but I was heartened to see that a decent percentage of the staff was aware that this might be the case.
  • 68% of write ups and ~80% of suspensions are Latino students (39% of our population)
  • 22% of write ups and ~20% of suspensions are White students (48% of our population)
  • 7% of write ups (and some non-zero number of suspensions) are Black students (5% of our population)
We discussed these statistics in our tables (which were strategically grouped to be a cross section of grade levels and departments) and then shared out some ideas. We also discussed a situation where a teacher made some broad assumptions (a student was frequently absent from school so the teacher was going to talk to the parents about the importance of education). As a staff we have a lot of learning to do (myself included!) but I think that most everyone is open to learning. It's really hard not to be when the person leading these discussions is so engaging and dynamic that it feels like I'm listening to spoken word poetry when she speaks!

  • I'm struggling with the feeling that I want to defend our data. But I'm not going to. Are there reasons that might skew the data? Sure. Is that any excuse for how incredibly biased we appear to be? Absolutely not.
  • In one of the ELL presentations the presenter mentioned that the language (e.g. Formerly Limited English Proficient) is not very positive. I know about person-first language but I might not have done such a good job today. I'm learning, we'll get there.


  1. As long as the trainers are people who were there, did that...
    Secondary is late. This has to happen birth-to-eight. If you work > grade three, it's uphill.

    1. Hi Vi, this is a district wide goal so there will be training happening K-12. But the main focus is on training the teachers to recognize our own bias. We will eventually need to work with students to convince them that we aren't just like any other white person in power, but first we need to understand cultural differences and broaden our own perspectives. This is a long term goal that'll take lots of work!

  2. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, during a "Latinas en Ciencias" project, asked successful women from Spanish-speaking homes to what they might attribute their success. Each responded that it was a white male mentor who believed they could master the material and make a contribution. If you are at Salem High, > 1/3 of your students have Spanish in their backgrounds. Find students you believe can be math winners, let them work together, and keep the challenges coming. Cultural competence is not about teachers studying the mirror; it's about finding and pushing student winners. Watch "Stand and Deliver" again --the best PD a district could possibly offer its teachers.

    1. "mentor who believed they could master the material and make a contribution." We're working on creating those mentors. It'd be great if we lived in a world where they showed up on our doorstep, but we don't. We're doing that while simultaneously continuing to teach and raise our standards. Why is approaching a problem from all angles an issue?

  3. Depends on the focus, time available, and expectations. Looked at your class makeup. You're expected to do it all!