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Educators believe conversation can help to bridge cultural gaps

In a society that sometimes tries to ignore issues of race, educators say they’re trying to become more intentional about discussing it.

Several years ago at Spokane Public Schools, a group of administrators began meeting regularly to talk frankly about their cultural experiences and discuss books like “Courageous Conversations about Race.”

Superintendent Nancy Stowell says most of what she knows about race came from those meetings “and the honesty of our staff,” particularly those of color.

“We’re really looking inward,” said Tennille Jeffries-Simmons, district director of human resources and equity services. “I think one of the reasons that race is so sticky, so difficult for people to talk about, is you’re afraid you’re going to say something wrong.”

At the University of Idaho, education students take a class called “Diverse Learners in Schools and Cultural Contexts” shortly after declaring their major. Then, in courses about teaching specific subjects, the future teachers are taught strategies for helping learners from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

“We make it a point to ensure that they’re introduced to that complexity of a multicultural society,” said Paul Rowland, dean of the UI College of Education.

That’s something he had to learn on the job, said Rowland, who attended Rutgers University and did his student teaching in 1969 at a New Jersey school torn by racial strife.

“I actually thought that must have been something that I was supposed to have figured out how to deal with on my own, that there weren’t strategies” to be learned in college, Rowland said. “It was only later on that I realized there really are strategies I should have known back then and that we now incorporate into our teacher education programs.”

Educators acknowledge that schools have a long way to go.

One goal of the federal No Child Left Behind Act is to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color. So far, that hasn’t happened.

For instance, 29 percent of black students in Washington last year passed the seventh-grade math WASL, compared with 57 percent of white students. For seventh-grade reading, the passage rates were 48 percent for black students and 68 percent for white students. For writing – 61 percent to 73 percent.

In response, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has formed an “African-American achievement gap committee” to study “best or promising practices” to address the issue.

In Spokane, black students are more likely to be disciplined than their white classmates, and less likely to be in classes for gifted or talented students.

When Stowell mentions those facts to black community leaders, she said the response is, “You’ve known this all along. What are you doing about it?”

“That’s the challenge,” Stowell said.