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Why cultural competence is becoming a priority


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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

Osborn Elementary School District Superintendent Patricia Tate Talks With A Second-grader In A Public School Classroom In Mexico. Photos Courtesy Of Carlson & Affiliates,

Celebrations of the heritage and contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans have been taking place in schools throughout Arizona as part of Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15), but many Arizona school districts are making a year-round priority of affirming cultural diversity and building cultural bridges between students, families and staff.

With the majority of Arizona students now identifying as a race/ethnicity other than white, the state’s public school teachers and leaders, who are predominantly white, are finding that a better understanding of their students’ cultures can lead to increased parental engagement and student success.

Why cultural competence is becoming a priority PatriciaTateAndStudentCulturalCompetencyInside

Osborn Elementary School District superintendent Patricia Tate talks with a second-grader in a public school classroom in Mexico. Photos courtesy of Carlson & Affiliates

School districts are including cultural competency in their new teacher training, and some school leaders and teachers have taken part in immersive language and cultural experiences to further their knowledge and understanding of the students they teach and their families.

Others schools actively partner with organizations focused on the Hispanic community and Native American tribal leaders to bring traditions, arts and skills to students’ classrooms.

“Our parents are predominantly Hispanic and/or bilingual, so cultural awareness is critical at Cartwright School District,” said Veronica Sanchez, director of communications and community engagement at the district which serves 19,000 students in the Maryvale community in west Phoenix. “We must be aware and sensitive to our population. By training staff appropriately, we can better serve our students and community.”

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Cartwright has provided professional development to staff through conferences and workshops that stress cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity training, Sanchez said.

Since our population is 92 percent Hispanic and more than 90 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunches, administrators have provided Ruby Payne‘s book  ‘A Framework for Understanding Poverty’ as a guideline to staff members to better prepare them to serve our community of students and parents,” Sanchez said.

Why cultural competence is becoming a priority ParentsAtCafecitos

Parents attend a Cafecito with school leaders in Cartwright Elementary School District. Photo courtesy of Cartwright Elementary School District

Also, each month every campus holds cafecitos, or coffee talks, where parents can learn how to help their children succeed in and out of the classroom, and the district provides interpreters for those meetings as well, Sanchez said.

Research shows that students do better in their studies and enjoy going to school when their parents are involved at the school. The cafecitos are one way parents can get involved and obtain more information about school policy, ways to help their students at home, drug prevention, bullying, state testing, internet safety and much more. They can also meet school administrators and voice their concerns as well as get any question they might have answered.

“The cafecitos are informative meetings, and a place where I can get resources to help facilitate the communication with my teenager,” said Adriana Carranza De Rodgriguez, a parent at Atkinson Middle School in the Cartwright School District.

Why is cultural competency important?

Cultural diversity and cultural conflict are at the root of educational inequity and injustice, and low expectations and unequal access to resources contribute to this problem, said Victor H. Diaz, Ph. D., student achievement strategist for the Isaac Elementary School District in west Phoenix’s Maryvale community, which serves 7,500 students.

Why cultural competence is becoming a priority Dr.VictorDiaz

Dr. Victor Diaz, student achievement strategist for Isaac School District

“When schools do not take culture into account and are not attuned to cultural difference, they set norms and expectations that create a situation where students in the communities where we work have to choose between being ‘good at school’ and ‘good at home,’” said Diaz, who also serves on the Osborn Elementary School District Governing Board.

“We’ve had generations of students face this dichotomy and the only way this will stop is by building cultural bridges between school and families,” Diaz said.

Stronger cultural awareness also helps Native American students learn to their potential, said Adair Klopfenstein, director of Native American studies at Tuba City Unified School District on the Navajo Nation in Coconino County and near the Hopi Nation.

“With the aid of community, parental, and school influences I believe that these students can achieve to optimum levels that will allow them to be successful in all other areas of content they have to tackle in their lives,” Klopfenstein said.

To celebrate Native American Week – Sept. 28 through Oct. 2 – Tuba City Unified students in all grade levels learned about Hopi and Navajo culture through presenters who shared their expertise in a variety of areas.

“Through traditional teaching techniques our district can capitalize on daily topics and utilize traditional knowledge to enhance student’s daily thinking, planning, classroom behavior, and assessment of their activities,” Klopfenstein said.

The presentations are one way students learn more about the Navajo and Hopi languages, cultures, traditional stories, songs and prayers, Klopfenstein said.

“Teachings radiate from the Hogan, from the basket, from the woman, and from the relationships of all things in nature,” Klopfenstein said. “The terminology from the home will be the cornerstones of our Navajo and Hopi Lavaiye programs in the immersion model of Tuba City Unified School District.”

This knowledge is key to understanding the community and providing a balanced curriculum that teaches students to live in harmony with society, nature and themselves, Klopfenstein said.

“In traditional Navajo society, not to possess a knowledge of stories, teachings, songs or prayers is to be poor,” Klopfenstein said. “This knowledge contains the wisdom for a prosperous and happy life and provides the means of obtaining favors of the holy people.”

Cultural training for educators

Cultural competency is part of new teacher orientation in Isaac School District, where 98 percent of students are Hispanic. Diaz said the district makes “learning about students and our community a high priority.”

Why cultural competence is becoming a priority Adair-Klopfenstein

Adair Klopfenstein heads up Tuba City Unified School District’s Native Cultural Studies. Photo courtesy of Rosanda Suetopka Thayer/Navajo-Hopi Observer

“We do this by asking teachers to deconstruct their motivations for wanting to teach in a district like ours, where more than 90 percent of our students are Latino and more than 90 percent receive free or reduced lunch, and analyze their motivations through this tension between being deficit-oriented or asset-based,” Diaz said.

New teachers also take a community tour and meet with a community panel, Diaz said.

“We also challenge the notion of being ‘color-blind’ and push our teachers to affirm all parts of their students’ identities,” Diaz said.

Isaac School District recently extended this training to school leaders, who early this school year, participated in a learning experience that analyzed our understandings of why inequities in education exist and persist, Diaz said.

“In this analysis, we considered how gaps in achievement and opportunity are rooted in cultural difference and cultural conflict,” Diaz said. “We then created theories of change that were rooted in affirming cultural diversity and using a strengths-based approach to cultural diversity.”

While there is still more to do, “these have been very encouraging steps forward in pushing the conversation about culture in our schools,” Diaz said.

At Tuba City Unified, the annual cultural symposium shows district staff methods to integrate culture and language into all facets of their instruction, Klopfenstein said.

“Our presenters share their knowledge of traditional education to all comers. This type of traditional knowledge is in such short supply these days,” Klopfenstein said. “Many presenters from around the reservation commented on the quality of the presenters and how the ceremonial knowledge was shared as it applied to education.”

While other similar conferences charge upwards of $500 for a day of traditional/cultural instruction, Tuba City Unified “follows our mission statement of Nanitin Bihoo’aah Bitsesilai doo Ohoo’aah Bindii’a by providing these services free of charge to those who are willing to put the time, patience, and discipline into learning and applying this to their classrooms and homes,” Klopfenstein said.

Tuba City Unified will expand these offerings this year to two separate symposiums in December and January, Klopfenstein said.

Cultural and language experience

To help teacher and districts better understand Hispanic culture, Carlson & Affiliates has offered a two-week immersive language and cultural experience for the past 23 years to educators and business professionals in Querétaro in central Mexico.

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Participants do group work and earn money for an auction later in the day

During the session, participants spend five hours a day learning Spanish at the Olé Language Center, stay for two-weeks with a family vetted by the language center, and experience Mexican culture through visits to the marketplace, museums, sporting events, and political rallies. They also attend meetings with city leaders, teachers and students among other options.

Susan Carlson, a co-founder of Carlson & Affiliates, served as the director of communications for a school district in Northglenn, Colo., in 1992 when the community’s demographics were changing as more families from Mexico moved to the area – many working in agriculture.

“It was clear to me that our school leaders were searching for ways to reach out to the families effectively – but they were hesitant. They didn’t know Spanish, had little experience establishing relationships with a non-English speaking community, and were afraid of making mistakes,” Carlson said.

That first group of educators who went to Mexico for language and cultural immersion called it “a transformational experience,” Carlson said.

After a recent session, a participant told Carlson that instead of relying on a translator to communicate with non-English speaking parents during school meetings, she now has the confidence to speak directly with parents.

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Participants apply their learning at the marketplace by purchasing the ingredients to make guacamole for their culmination event.

Recently, Avondale Elementary School District sent the superintendent, several member of the district office staff, building principals and teachers, to a session and they planned how they would use the experience to improve community relations, Carlson said.

“They will start an outreach program to their non-English speaking Latino parents, inviting them in to help the educators practice their newly learned Spanish,” Carlson said. “The educators, in turn, will help the parents practice their English. What a beautiful way to affirm parents and their culture and at the same time, create lasting relationships.”

But more than just the language, participants begin to understand the culture, said Carlson, former executive director of Arizona Business & Education Coalition.

“Because participants have lived with a family, sat around the table and participated in conversations, listened and watched family interactions, they’ve begun to understand deep cultural concepts such as the concept of self, of time, of gender and class roles, as well as attitudes toward cooperation vs. competition and toward elders,” Carlson said.

Participants also experience the struggle of learning a second language, the joy of communicating, the beauty of the Mexican culture through music, art and political protests on display in the plazas and a deep appreciation of the people of Mexico, Carlson said.

They also come away with an understanding of how children who are second language learners actually feel at the end of the day, Carlson said.

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Participants learn about Mexican culture during a visit to the Museo Regional de Querétaro.

A teacher, who took part in a session, said she was puzzled when English Language Learners seemed to understand their information-packed lessons, yet don’t do well on the Arizona English Language Learner Assessment, but “now, I get it.”

“My house mother welcomed us into the home and described the kitchen, the bedrooms, what we can expect … all in Spanish,” the teacher said. “I was exhausted listening to it all and eventually stopped trying to decipher every word.”

“When she asked if I understood, I smiled and nodded ‘yes.’ I didn’t want to be rude. Suddenly, I now understand,” the teacher said. “That’s what our ELL kiddos do at the end of a long lesson. They’re just tired.”

A school superintendent said of the struggle to learn, “I know I ought to be better at this. I ought to pick it up easier. It’s very tiring.”

 Later that year, she met a fourth-grader who’d just emigrated from Mexico in tears, because he felt so “stupid,” and she empathized with him, telling him of her own experience, Carlson said.

Closing the achievement gap

Carlson also serves on the board of the Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center, which commissions an annual report on minority student educational progress. One of the 2013 report’s recommendations is to improve the cultural competence of educators.

“The needle has hardly moved on closing the achievement gap – and it must move if we are to have an economic future here in Arizona,” Carlson said. “We cannot ignore the importance of the Mexican family in making decisions for and with their youngsters – so we must seek out strategies that enable us to do that outreach better.”

An understanding of the importance Native Americans place on a harmonious life is key to helping students achieve, Klopfenstein said.

“The challenge, as always, remains to study the ancient organization of the home and the good life, as placed by the diiyin (holy people) that makes hoozho (balance and harmony) obtainable, and explore how this knowledge can be integrated into modern Western knowledge,” Klopfenstein said.

This knowledge helps individuals develop sound beliefs and values to guide decisions, skills to provide the best living for their family, leadership in the home and the community, and a sense of reverence for the earth, all living things and that which is in the heavens, Klopfenstein said.

There are so many reasons why cultural competence is important for everyone, not just schools and educators, Diaz said.

“In all sectors of our society, the ways in which we navigate and affirm cultural difference has a deep impact on just about everything: our democracy, our sense of self, our economy, our nation,” Diaz said.

“Doing this work in our schools is a key step in the journey to realizing a world where all people are valued for who they are and where they come from,” Diaz said.