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The Dirty Dozen: 12 Ways to Build an Inclusive School Community

As the number of students from diverse backgrounds continues to grow in U.S. schools, the role of culturally responsive educations continues to become increasingly important. Current estimations indicate there are more than 5 million English Language Learners (ELLs), who speak more than 400 languages, in U.S. public schools, and an estimated 40 percent of U.S. public school students are from non-white ethnic backgrounds. Further, it is estimated that by the year 2050, no ethnic or racial group will make up the majority of the country’s school-age populations. Adding to the complexity, many students of diverse backgrounds come from families of poverty, have parents who are not well-educated, move around and change schools frequently, exhibit low self-efficacy, and come from homes with non-traditional families. Given these shifts in our student populations, administrators and school staff can no longer steer away from cultural conversations. Educators must become increasingly focused on effective methods for growing culturally responsive practices in K-12 education and creating inclusive school communities.

Inclusive schools are those that recognize not only the challenges but also the opportunities that diversity presents. Inclusive schools embrace the need to teach all students to high standards while establishing a common set of core values within the school community. It is in this type of school community, culturally competent schools, that all children can thrive, both academically and emotionally.

What is a Culturally Competent School?

The differences that make individuals unique are an essential part of America’s strength, and it is no different in our nation’s schools. While it is true that diverse student populations can present challenges for educators, culturally competent schools value that diversity and use it as an asset to benefit the whole school community. Cultural competence has been described, in a school setting, as having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about differences and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families. Cultural competence is more than learning about the music students enjoy or the most recent flavors of slang in each culture; it is the ability to reflect on our own biases and assumptions about those who are different from us and be aware of our thoughts and actions towards those who are different from us in one or more ways.

Culturally competent schools have been described as those that honor, respect, and value diversity in theory and in practice and where teaching and learning are made relevant to all students. Culturally competent schools promote inclusiveness and appropriate responses to differences, and these values are reflected in their policies, programs, and practices. With the rapid growth of diversity in U.S. schools and the projected future growth, the time is now for districts and schools to begin fostering an inclusive environment and building culturally competent schools!

Gaining cultural competence will require effort from educators and a well-designed plan. Tight schedules and the need for pandemic-related preparations do not leave an abundance of time for cultural competency training. However, educators can begin having those foundational conversations, and school districts can provide multiple and flexible opportunities for training throughout the year.

Here are a few things you can do to begin your journey to becoming a culturally inclusive school:

  1. Know the Community You Serve – Educators sometimes work in communities where they do not live. This can pose a problem when educators fail to educate themselves about the community they serve. There can be vast differences between hearsay and reality about a community. Asking questions, searching for factual information, and building relationships to help better serve the community should be the prevailing mindset.

  2. Listen and Observe Never miss a chance to shut up is a lesson my dad taught me at a young age, and when I began serving in leadership roles was I ever so glad for that lesson! When one is constantly talking there is no room for listening. Listening is the key to understanding, yet what may seem like a simple task is rarely practiced. Listen to the parents, listen to the students, listen to your peers, listen to your staff. When what you hear corroborates what you see, act. Far too often leaders fail to see because they fail to listen.

  3. Learn About Students’ Cultures – Teachers must strive to learn about their students’ cultures in order to provide effective instruction. Social dynamics, learning styles, and life experiences of students often vary according to the cultural background; therefore, to teach and assess students effectively, teachers must be aware of these frames of reference. Critically understanding these cultures can help teachers move beyond mere cultural awareness and into specific practices that serve the learning needs of diverse students.

  4. Understand the Dynamics of Cultural Interactions – There are many factors that can affect interactions across cultures, including historical cultural experiences and relationships between cultures in a local community. It is important that educators learn about these cultures and their interactions. Schools must create safe spaces to have broader discussions about how these cultural interactions impact the school climate and culture.

  5. Develop Cross-Cultural Skills – The time for talking about change has passed. It is time for words to become actions. Educators must recognize the differences in everyone represented in the school regardless of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Now is the time to lean into cultural competency to strengthen the relationships between the school and the community. Leaders must take the initiative to provide safe spaces to discuss cultural differences and reestablish norms built on cultural competency.

  6. Provide Professional Learning Focused on Cultural Awareness and Cultural Competence – Leaders can support teachers’ skill-building by providing professional learning opportunities that reinforce culturally competent classroom practices. Administrators can mentor, support, and evaluate teachers’ abilities to practice culturally responsive instruction and providing a high-quality professional development plan that is grounded in the National Center for Culturally Responsive Education Systems’ (NCCRESt) six principles of professional learning to prepare culturally responsive teachers.

  7. Employ a Culturally Responsive Pedagogy – Culturally responsive teaching is predicated on the assumption that students learn best when course content relates to their own experiences and points of reference and when teaching styles reflect students’ cultural behavioral norms. When teaching a diverse student body use culturally relevant instructional materials and culturally representative texts, discuss negative stereotypes in texts, point out historical contributions from culturally diverse figures, and match classroom instruction to cultural norms for social interaction to enhance students’ social skills development and problem-solving ability.

  8. Implement Culturally Competent School Policies –Review current school policies for culture-specific considerations and support. Identify whether the policies accurately reflect students’ cultures and provide support for bridging the school-home cultural divides and whether they support cultural competency as a component of teacher evaluation. Review discipline policies for cultural discrepancies between teachers and students that could lead to misinterpretation of student behavior. Begin revising any policies that do not build cultural competence in your school and ensure any new policies do in fact reflect cultural competency.

  9. Embrace Family & Community Involvement – To create an atmosphere of inclusion, reach out to diverse parents and community members, and ensure that the school environment is welcoming and accessible. Implement mutually beneficial family engagement practices. For instance, you could implement a program that helps parents gain cultural capital – the skills necessary to navigate the school system – and invite community members to speak to students and staff. Value all involvement from parents and community no matter the form and trust they are providing the best they can, and create a two-way line of communication between home and school.

  10. Conduct Self-Assessments – The first step towards becoming a culturally competent teacher or school leader is to assess your own cultural perspectives and biases. Some methods of self-assessment useful in gaining some insight are engaging in reflective thinking and writing; exploring personal and family histories; identifying membership in different groups; and observing or reading about successful teachers in diverse settings. Once educators develop this knowledge about themselves, they can better recognize cultural biases and adjust their practices and behavior accordingly.

  11. Conduct a Cultural Audit – Use a valid instrument such as the School-Wide Cultural Competence Observation Checklist (SCCOC) to gain an overview of the level of cultural competence in your school or partner with a reputable service provider to conduct an in-depth cultural audit of your school, policies, and programs. Create cultural audit teams to assist with the audit and formulate recommendations for future practice.

  12. Identify Areas for Growth – Create a Culture Competence Team (CCT) to review the areas addressed in this article, cultural audit results, and any other pertinent information to identify gaps in cultural competency within your school. The CCT can explore cultural competence from the perspectives of administrators, teachers, staff, parents, students, and community members and prioritize areas for growth. After researching best practices. The CCT can make recommendations about how to best close the gaps to help your school achieve cultural competency.

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