When Mona Mendoza teaches square dancing, boys learn to curtsy as well as bow.
When she teaches physical education, she deducts laps around the gym for students who can name women athletes.
When she plans school celebrations, the Garfield Elementary teacher includes a United Nations Day.
That, says Mendoza, is equity in action.
Her work on equity and diversity in public schools helped earn Mendoza a part-time position on a new team of Spokane School District 81 educators called “equity facilitators,” a first-of-its-kind program in the state.
The district is devoting $202,000 and three new positions - one full-time and two half-time - this school year to make schools more comfortable for minorities and children with disabilities who often feel left out.
The three facilitators travel through the district, teaching equity workshops, helping teachers pick books on other cultures, and screening textbooks for bias.
Sometimes they mediate racial disputes. Simpler duties include encouraging teachers to occasionally use “Juan” instead of “John” in examples.
Some teachers embrace the equity program, while others are skeptical. They see it as something else to wedge into an already tight classroom schedule. Or they resent giving credence to issues they don’t approve of, such as homosexuality.
Proponents say the equity push will prepare students to live and work in a world that’s far more diverse than predominantly white Spokane.
“It’s important to us that we see some dollars spent for equity. We haven’t had that in the past,” says Susan McIntyre, who leads a citizens committee on equity appointed by school board members.
“If you don’t have people who do that as their major task, it gets pushed aside.”
Not all parents agree. Connie Taylor, who volunteers in her children’s District 81 schools, suggests administrators can find better ways to spend $200,000.
“I think the district’s making a huge mountain out of a molehill,” she says.
She also worries children will be sheltered from inequalities they’ll face as adults. “When they get in the real world, they won’t have teachers coming into their workplace and (intervening on their behalf).”
Teachers should be responsible for ridding their classrooms of discrimination, but they’re savvy enough to do it without help from administrators - “without Big Brother, so to speak,” Taylor says.
Taylor isn’t the only one to object. Mendoza ticks off a list of complaints she’s heard from teachers: “This is just one more thing … I don’t have time … This is all about being politically correct … I’m not going to do it.
“A lot of staff say, ‘We’re tolerant,”’ says Mendoza, who describes herself as feminist-Chicana-lesbian-activist. “Tolerant isn’t the same thing as welcoming.”
Equity coordinators have more in their favor than determination. They also have school district rules and goals.
Administrators say the equity plan builds on a goal the school board adopted three years ago.
The goal, as part of a far-reaching strategic plan: “Ensure a learning environment that recognizes the strength of diversity and respects differences in gender, ability, culture and backgrounds.”
That target easily can be overlooked in a district where 13 percent of students - but only 5 percent of teachers - are minorities, administrators say.
Students are also expected to follow written rules that include: “Actively work to learn about and overcome prejudices” and “Respect others in general and in relation to their race, gender, religion, ethnic origin, disability, sexual orientation and individual differences.”
Students and teachers are getting the message in a variety of ways.
Ivan Bush, who oversees the equity program, shows them a bag of heavy blocks labeled “disabilities,” “gender,” “religion” and “race.”
He invites grade-school students to give examples of discrimination and harassment based on the blocks.
“I’ve been teased because I don’t really have a religion for myself,” says a girl at Logan Elementary School, listening to Bush’s presentation.
“That’s so unfortunate,” Bush replies.
Another girl, who wears thick glasses, says she’s nicknamed “Four Eyes.” A boy with long hair says other kids call him a girl.
“It’s all right to have long hair or short hair,” Bush tells the students. “You know, to wear glasses, to be a different color, to be a different gender, it’s all right. There’s beauty in it.
“But we take the beauty away from it when we talk about people and put them down. And we break the law.”
He mentions school anti-harassment rules and the state malicious harassment law.
To reach gay and lesbian students, Mendoza recently attended a youth group sponsored by Spokane County’s health district. She told group members that gay-bashing is unacceptable in Spokane schools and encouraged them to report harassment to teachers.
Mendoza and her colleagues also plan a series of workshops this year aimed primarily at teachers and administrators.
A holiday seminar won’t show teachers how to make ornaments. Instead, it’ll train them to stage classroom celebrations without offending students who don’t celebrate Christmas.
“There are some teachers who still celebrate a traditional Christmas,” says equity facilitator Linda Takami. “My question to them would be, ‘How did all the kids feel?’ If there were a Jehovah’s Witness, a Jewish child, (they) might feel excluded.”
Try having a more generic winter celebration instead, she suggests.
“Historically, several of our holidays and celebrations are based on Christian traditions,” says Takami. “Because our demographics are changing, that’s the shift, to value and honor all the holidays.”
At Garfield Elementary in north Spokane, for instance, children honored Women’s History Month and Cinco de Mayo, a holiday celebrating an 1862 Mexican victory over the French.
As a parent, Taylor says she wants her children exposed to celebrations honoring diverse cultures. Yet she doesn’t want them to miss out on holidays that have long been observed in U.S. schools.
“If we add those, why are we taking Christmas away?” she asks. “Instead of taking away, why don’t we just add holidays?”
Many schools are following the trend to add holidays. Some observe Kwanzaa, an African American celebration that synthesizes rituals and values from African cultures and traditions. Others schedule a “Friendship Day.” Hamblen Elementary had “Disability Week,” which ended in a game of wheelchair basketball.
Teachers are also being taught to screen instructional materials for racial and gender bias.
A few guidelines in a new brochure: Watch for words that exclude, ridicule, or perpetuate stereotypes. Make sure females and people of color don’t function only in supporting roles.
Even the use of colors affects students’ self-image, the brochure says. “Images of the color white as the ultimate in beauty, cleanliness, and virtue; the color black as evil, dirty and menacing are demeaning to all.”
Teachers are also encouraged to use “inclusive language” - “firefighter” instead of “fireman,” “girls and boys” rather than “guys.”
At the Libby Center, equity workers help teachers comb through an expanded library of books about other cultures.
They encourage them to talk about other races in positive ways. For instance, include Japanese culture in history lessons other than the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Takami, a Japanese American woman who attended Spokane public schools as a child, recalls hearing her first positive stories about her ancestors a few years ago in an education workshop.
Her goal for today’s students: “I’d like all kids to be able to hear their stories in their classrooms.”
Spokane schools are moving in that direction. All District 81 principals are required to develop detailed plans to improve equity in their schools. The plans must be complete this school year.
The three equity workers are branching out to meet with employees at all 47 Spokane schools to offer help.
At some schools, facilitators start by simply defining equity. Other schools already have begun what they call the “equity journey.”
A multiracial support group has been active at Lewis and Clark High School for seven years.
The 35 or so members of Race and Cultural Equality (RACE), who represent many races and religions, mediate disputes among classmates and give presentations on race and minority issues.
They once put able-bodied teachers and students in wheelchairs for a day to demonstrate how inaccessible parts of the school were.
Despite progress by the RACE group, Principal Mike Howson says the district’s new equity workers can help his school. He’s bothered, for instance, by how often equality is addressed only when conflicts among students arise.
“It should be a daily strand in our living. We’ve got to weave this into the fabric of the school.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: More minority students than teachers
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TOO FEW ROLE MODELS FOR MINORITY STUDENTS Minority students have far too few role models in Spokane District 81 schools and that probably won’t change anytime soon, administrators say. In the past five years, the number of non-white teachers and their support staff rose only from 100 to 103, according to new statistics. Only 5 percent of teachers - but 13 percent of Spokane students - represent racial minorities. That means some schools have no teachers of color, while others have just one or two. Administrators say they’re trying to hire more minority teachers but doubt they’ll ever catch up. “We’re not going to be able to equal the student population,” says Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson. That’s because minorities account for only about 3 percent of college graduates with teaching degrees from Washington universities, Anderson says. “It’s a small pool who are going into teaching,” he says. “We’re all competing for those graduates. From a recruiting standpoint, it’s tough.” Children like Ciera Smith, 9, need more exposure to minorities in leadership positions at school, says her father, James Smith, an African-American member of the district’s affirmative action council. “She’s wondering, ‘Dad, where are teachers of color?”’ James Smith says. The district’s slow progress in hiring non-white teachers is hurtful, Smith says. “I think they’re trying, but I think the community has to push the district in this direction.” Teachers say they’d like to see a more intense effort from the district and the teacher’s union. Dominic Zamora, chairman of the district’s affirmative action council, suggests a few starting points. When minority job candidates are rejected, he thinks administrators should provide a justifiable, written explanation. “If they can’t do that, then (the candidate) should be hired,” Zamora says. He’s also trying to arrange school days where teachers of color can gather to talk about their struggles and how they overcome them. Spokane isn’t a cultural mecca, and that makes recruiting minorities especially tough, administrators and teachers agree. Anderson says he plans to focus on attracting people with ties to the area, such as relatives or a university. “I think given Spokane and its lack of diversity, it’s almost fruitless to go recruit someone out of Alabama and bring them to Spokane without any kind of social ties - church or cultural,” says Anderson. “We’ll lose them. It’s just too big a shock.” - Jeanette White
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