In Hartford, A Call For 'Cultural Competence' In Schools
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
May 09, 2013
HARTFORD — — Tiana Hercules lives with her husband and two young sons on Asylum Hill, one of the area's most diverse neighborhoods.
But Hercules, a program director for the city, said she feels a certain "disconnect" in the schools.
"I've noticed a lack of appreciation for diversity across the board," said Hercules, president of the school's parent-teacher organization. "That cultural appreciation is missing from the curriculum, and I feel that when kids come to the school door, it's almost like they have to abandon their identity."
Her children are black. The teachers at West Middle Elementary School and across the urban school system are mostly white.
City schools have been consumed with improving test scores. What about social awareness? Empathy? Being respectful of cultural identities that are different from one's own?
Those questions were raised during a workshop on "cultural competency" at the Hartford Public Library Wednesday night, part of the school system's four-week Hartford Parent Academy course on educating parents to be better advocates and at-home teachers for their children. The academy is funded with a $79,166 state grant.
Kimberly Traverso, a consultant for the state Department of Education, addressed about 20 people Wednesday, including Hercules, on the skills their children will need to compete in a global economy.
Being multilingual is crucial these days, she said, but so is teaching chldren to be humane and honest, to truly listen and make eye contact and being aware of cultural differences.
The topic sparked a few blunt comments on race in the classroom. One mother said her son attends a neighborhood school where the teachers are white and many of the classroom aides are black. She characterized the teachers as "clueless" when dealing with urban students.
Several parents asked why educators aren't required to take workshops on cultural competency.
Nearly a quarter of Hartford's public school teachers are minority, higher than the national average of 16.5 percent, a district administrator told the city board of education in March. Schools across the country have struggled to diversify their teaching staff because of a shortage of minorities entering the profession after college.
Glendowlyn Hall, Hartford schools' manager of parent and community engagement, said Wednesday that the district is reviewing the training it offers teachers. The Hartford Federation of Teachers has generally made clear that it welcomes as much professional development as possible.
"Cultural competency has risen to the top as a priority ... We clearly get the message," said Hall, who called the issue a "hot topic" in the community.
On Wednesday night, a father argued that teachers should focus on academics, while Sheila Mayo-Brown, who is raising three grandchildren in Hartford, contended that teachers should also be able to recognize any biases in the classroom.
Hercules called for the cultural training to be mandatory in urban schools. Ideally, she said, parents and staff could learn together.
Susan Hutchinson said she was eager to apply the advice from Traverso's talk, which included an emphasis on social skills. Her daughter is a sixth-grader at Kinsella Magnet School of the Performing Arts and tends to give one-word responses when speaking with others.
"I see the schools as giving her the academics, but ... what about small talk and just being able to work with people?" said Hutchinson of Wethersfield. "You may have straight A's, but you go to a job interview and you don't make eye contact and your handshake is fishy — who's going to hire you?"
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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