The staff of Howell Road School wants to become more culturally proficient this year. “This goal itself doesn’t just challenge our practices, but asked us to reflect upon our beliefs,” Principal Frank Hupolsky told the District 13 Board of Education on March 27.
Cultural proficiency differs from cultural competence at a school. A culturally competent educator interacts with other cultures and recognizes their differences, according to a recent essay on cultural proficiency in education by Cady Landa. A culturally proficient educator “views diversity as a benefit and interacts knowledgeably and respectfully among a variety of cultural groups,” indicating a more integral understanding of the role culture plays in education, Landa wrote in 2011.
She also described the benefits of a culturally proficient education. She cited a 1997 study by the Kamehameha Early Education Program in Hawai that showed teachers using a participation structure that followed the interactional rules of a talk story — a common speech event for Native Hawaiians. The result was that Native Hawaiian children were more engaged in lessons when they were presented in a culturally coherent way.
Also cited by Landa was a 1982 study by A. Wade Boykin conducted in New York City. Boykin used a sample of 64 third-graders — half were black and grew up in housing projects for low-income families in East Harlem, and the other half were white and grew up in a middle- to upper-class area of Staten Island. Boykin asked all the students to perform the same task, and found that the black students from low-income families performed better when they were given a variety of formats for learning, while the other group’s performance did not change with the same variation.
Cultural proficiency is important at Howell Road School, Hupolsky said, because of the increase in the non-white, low-income population. At the Board of Education meeting, he shared statistics about the school’s demographics. They showed that in the 1999-2000 school year, a plurality of the students were white, but by 2016-17, only
8 percent were white. Hupolsky also showed that in 1999-2000, only 8.5 percent of
students were receiving free or reduced lunch, but in the 2016-17 school year, 42 percent did so.
“We’ve had quite a big swing in our demographics,” he said.
To try to become more culturally proficient, staff members at the school met and selected words that they thought explained culture. They discovered that many of the descriptions they chose were superficial representations of culture, such as the clothing or the food. “When we completed this, it helped really solidify our need for our work,” Hupolsky said.
The next step in the process was to have students sort the books in their classroom libraries based on the protagonists’ culture. “In some grades, we had charts, and the students could actually keep tally marks, and they would discuss what they were finding in the books,” said Paula Barnick, an English as a New Language teacher who led the library audit.
In first grade, she said, they found that all of the books about the first day of school featured characters who were white. To remedy that, Barnick and the teachers ordered new culturally diverse books. One teacher, she said, read the book “The Golden Rule,” by Ilene Cooper, to her class.
“I won’t forget the teacher’s reaction,” Barnick recalled, “because she said, ‘You’re not going to believe this: We’re reading the book and one of the kids says, “Eid. You said Eid? I can’t believe you said Eid.’” And the teacher felt like it was so empowering, too, because she was able to connect with the child, and the child was affirming her background.”
To continue their work, Hupolsky wants to examine the school’s traditions and hire a professional developer who can speak about implicit and explicit bias, and how to avoid “micro-aggressions” — the unintentional ways in which ignorance of another culture may give offense. For example, a person might offer certain foods to someone whose culture or religion includes dietary restrictions. “Those are the conversations we’re hoping to have as a faculty and staff,” Hupolsky said.
“It’s been an amazing process for all of us,” he added.