District 191 aims for culturally proficient schools

Progress made, work remains, officials say

Building cultural proficiency in District 191 schools is a work in progress — and while there’s been progress, educators say, more work remains.

The process began in 2014 and isn’t likely to take sustainable hold until 2020, Stacie Stanley, director of curriculum, instruction and support services, told the School Board on April 27.

Charged with leading the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district’s work to build a culturally proficient school system, Stanley took measure in 2014 of where the district stood.

Based on staff surveys, student and family focus groups, principal interviews and crunching of test and other data, Stanley found unequal outcomes.

There were learning gaps between student groups. Diverse student groups were overrepresented in intervention programs and the district’s alternative high school. Some of the linguistically, culturally and ethnically diverse groups had subpar graduation rates. And diverse groups were underrepresented in College in the Schools enrollment, Postsecondary Enrollment Options and STEM courses, Stanley said.

“Some groups of students were experiencing school differently as evidenced by student reporting and focus groups and listening sessions, and as we heard from members of the culturally proficient youth squad this evening,” Stanley said.

She was referring to an April 27 report to the board by Burnsville Youth for Cultural Awareness, a Burnsville High School student panel that participated in Reimagine Minnesota, a statewide school integration and equity effort.

At BHS, which has more than 50 percent students of color, the panel reported some discouraging outcomes, including:

–Students of color are placed in lower-level classes based on assumptions about their intelligence.

–It’s easier for students of color to get into trouble because they’re held accountable for behaviors other students get “a pass” for.

–School authorities assume students of color don’t care about their education.

The panel called for equal treatment, more staff support and more support for minority student activities, even those with small numbers.

Among the district’s mostly white teaching staff, Stanley found that about 75 percent knew they needed help adjusting to  a student body with an ever-growing number of Somali, Latino and African-American students.

“Specifically, teachers reported that they do not have the skill set to deliver instruction in a differential and high-engagement manner,” Stanley said.

The 2015-16 school year was used to train district leaders in developing culturally proficient school systems, with full staff training this year and full implementation beginning next year, Stanley said.

Staffers are coached to better understand their own beliefs, values and assumptions and how those affect their work with different student groups.

An April survey of district teachers suggests the training is taking hold. Teachers were asked, on a scale of 1 (never) to 4 (daily), how often they’ve used the “high-engagement strategies” modeled during training. The average was response was 3.

Teachers were asked how often they’ve challenged or critiqued their “mental models.”  The average response was 2.8

“For me, the biggest change has been a personal change,” Gideon Pond Elementary digital learning specialist Alexis Rollie, a culturally proficient schools staff leader, told the board. “We reflect a lot on our teaching as teachers: ‘How did this lesson go; what can I do differently?’

“But it’s something different to reflect on how my beliefs and my values really play out in my classroom and how I am projecting those onto my students and perhaps having expectations based on my beliefs more than based on student learning.”

Added Gideon Pond third-grade teacher Allison Skoglund: “Culture is living and breathing in our daily lives, and it’s constantly in flux. This work has really helped.”

Gideon Pond Principal Chris Bellmont said students of color have made some big leaps in school engagement this year.

The number serving on school patrols has doubled, the number in the chess club has nearly doubled, and the number in activities such as Math Masters has grown.

Bellmont said he came from a social-justice-oriented family but grew up “culturally impoverished,” not interacting with people of color until after high school.

“And now,” he said, “having a first-grader at Gideon Pond, my wife and I can’t imagine sending our children to a school that isn’t culturally rich.”

Contact John Gessner at john.gessner@ecm-inc.com or 952-846-2031.